2011 College Football Season Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini


2010 Record: (7-6, 4-4 in Big 10)

Head Coach: Ron Zook (28-45 at Illinois, 51-59 All-Time)

Last Bowl Game: 2010 Texas Bowl (beat Baylor 38-14)

CFBZ Illinois Links

5 Players Ready To Breakout In the Big 10

2010 Exit Survey

Pre-Spring All Big Ten Team

Returning Big Ten Offensive Firepower


9/3: Arkansas St

9/10: South Dakota St

9/17: Arizona St

9/24: Western Michigan

10/1: Northwestern (2010 result: won 48-27)

10/8: at Indiana (2010 result: won 43-13)

10/15: Ohio St (2010 result: lost 24-13)

10/22: at Purdue (2010 result: won 44-10)

10/29: at Penn St (2010 result: won 33-13)

11/12: Michigan (2010 result: lost 67-65 3OT)

11/19: Wisconsin

11/26: at Minnesota (2010 result: lost 38-34)

2010 Offensive Statistics:

Scoring: 32.5 ppg (4th in Big Ten, 26th in Nation)

Rushing Yds/Game: 246.08 yds/game (1st in Big Ten, 11th in Nation)

Passing Yds/Game: 151.0 yds/game (10th in Big Ten, 111th in Nation)

Total Yds/Game: 397.1 yds/game (4th in Big Ten, 45th in Nation)

2010 Defensive Statistics:

Scoring: 23.5 ppg (5th in Big Ten, 48th in Nation)

Rushing Yds/Game: 130.77 yds/game (4th in Big Ten, 32nd in Nation)

Passing Yds/Game: 220.5 yds/game (6th in Big Ten, 61st in Nation)

Total Yds/Game: 351.3 yds/game (5th in Big Ten, 38th in Nation)

2010 Misc Stats:

Turnover Margin: +0.62 per game (4th in Big Ten, 22nd in Nation)

Penalties: 54.8 yds/game (8th in Big Ten, 72nd in Nation)

Returning Starters:

Offense: 7

Defense: 6

Kicker/Punter: 1

Top Returning Statistical Leaders:

Passing: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, Soph (155 of 264 for 1825 yds, 17 TD, 8 INT)

Rushing: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, Soph (184 for 859 yds, 5 TD)

Receiving: WR A.J. Jenkins, Sr (56 rec for 746 yds, 7 TD)

Tackles: LB Ian Thomas, Sr (68)

Sacks: BANDIT Michael Buchanan, Jr (2)

Interceptions: FS Trulon Henry, Sr (3)

Bowl Predictions

Athlon Sports: Little Caesars (vs Toledo)

Phil Steele: TicketCity (vs Houston)

Ron Zook looked like he was finally going to have that signature season at Illinois that he so badly needed. His team started off 5-3 and had four very winnable games to finish their season. But it wasn't quite as easy as it looked as the Illini dropped games to Michigan, Minnesota and Fresno State and closed the regular season at 6-6. While it was a disappointing end to the season it was a huge upgrade from finishing 3-9 in 2009 and Zook took Illinois to it's first bowl game since 2007.

This year the Illini will put it's hopes on the back of sophomore QB Nathan Scheelhaase as the Illini will have to replace it's leading rusher (Mikel Leshoure), it's top three tacklers (Martez Wilson, Nate Bussey, Travon Bellamy) and it's leading sacker (Corey Liuget). That looks like a lot to replace but I do like how the Illinois schedule plays out. The first five games are at home this year and they only have scheduled games with three teams that they lost to last year. The pivitol games for Illinois in my mind are probably Arizona State and Northwestern. If they win both of those they could be 6-0 heading into Ohio State on Oct 15th and if they split them then they will probably be 5-1. That's a lot of "could be's" especially when you are talking about a coach with the inconsistent track record of Ron Zook. Will this be the year that the Zooker and Illinois finally break out? We caught up with Nick Houska from Writing Illini to get a local take on the 2011 Illinois Fighting Illini.

Ron Zook looked like he was coming off the hot seat when his team started 5-3 but then came losses to Michigan and Minnesota. What are your overall thoughts on the Zooker?

Ask any Illini fan and they will tell you that head coach Ron Zook’s six seasons at Illinois have been anything but consistent. Inheriting a program in 2005 that was admittedly weak, Zook has taken the program on a virtual rollercoaster ride of highs and lows. Zook’s successes at Illinois, highlighted by the Rose Bowl season in 2007 and the Texas Bowl victory last year, are often overlooked due to the four losing seasons that surround those two seasons. That being said, many view last season as a positive one for Illinois football. Headed into the Michigan game, Illinois looked like a solid team in the Big Ten. Their three losses had all come to teams ranked in the top 15 nationally and they were one win away from their first bowl game since the Rose Bowl.

Then came the Michigan loss. This was an incredibly tough loss for the Illini because of how well they played offensively and how close they came time and time again to winning. The loss, which set numerous school and Big Ten records for points and total yards, came in triple overtime as the Illini failed on a mandatory two-point conversion after a touchdown. The Illini returned home exhausted and still needing a win to become bowl eligible. They overlooked a 1-9 Minnesota team and allowed the Gophers to pull off the upset.

While this was clearly the low point in the team’s season, they were able to rally together and finish the season with a winning record and their first bowl win in over 10 years. For this reason, along with the fact that the University does not possess the funds to buy out his contract and hire a legitimate replacement, I believe that Zook’s job is relatively secure. It is likely that Zook will continue to coach for the remainder of his contract, and if he can build off last season instead of falling backwards, there may even be a slight extension for him. However, the University is also hiring a new athletic director who may look to make a splash, so nothing is written in stone.

Zook made two keys hires last year in OC Paul Petrino and DC Vic Koenning. What is your assessment on the jobs they did last year?

Undoubtedly the hiring of Petrino and Koenning was what saved Zook’s job. The two have turned the program around from its post-Rose Bowl downfall and shown great promise. Petrino's job was arguable the harder of the two as not only was he taking over and re-teaching the offense to the veteran players, he had to help a quarterback who had never played a down of college football develop. He was incredibly successful, as the Illini offense averaged over 40 points per game in the second half of the season. Koenning inherited a defensive unit with a young secondary and plagued by injuries, but it was still incredibly solid, especially early on. The Michigan loss, when the opponent hung 67 points on Illinois, knocked the defense off its horse for a while, but they recovered by the time the bowl game came around and held a very potent Baylor offense to only 14 points. I would give both assistant coaches an A for their first seasons at Illinois. If they can continue to work with their squads as well as they did last season, even with the departures of several prominent juniors, 2011 could be a great season for Illinois.

The Illini lost 1,700 yard rusher Mikel Leshore to the NFL Draft. How will they replace him?

Leshoure rewrote the school record books last season. He set the Illinois school record for yards in a season, yards in a single game, rushing touchdowns in a season, and points in a season. Not bad for a school that has housed such greats as Red Grange and Howard Griffith, not to mention recent stars such as Pierre Thomas and Rashard Mendenhall. Leshoure’s early departure, although expected, does leave a large hole in the Illinois offense. However, it is not a hole that cannot be filled. Jason Ford, a senior running back who was beat out for the starting spot last year, is ready to prove that he too can leave a mark on the program. Ford has almost 1,400 career rushing yards and 19 rushing touchdowns. While he lacks Leshoure’s speed, he does possess superior strength and has great potential as an every down back. Ford hurt his ankle in the spring and was kept out of spring drills, but he is on the road to recovery and should be ready to go by the time fall comes around.

Who are some newcomers that you think can come in and make an immediate impact on this team?

Despite a large graduating class and several early departures, Illinois actually returns many experienced players in starting roles. One area that is noticeably weak is wide receiver. Senior A.J. Jenkins lead Illinois in receiving last season and returns with hopes that a strong season could lead to an NFL career, but behind him there is not much experience. Because of this, the freshman who will likely make the biggest impact is Jon Davis, a receiver from Louisville, Kentucky. Davis originally verbally committed to Kentucky, but after watching Illinois’ turnaround last season, he decommitted and signed with the Illini. Davis was a four star prospect who was in ESPN’s top 150 recruits for the 2011 class. Our sophomore quarterback really developed as a passer throughout his freshman season, and, provided Davis and other receivers can step up and assume a starting role, the Illinois passing game should noticeably improve. 

Looking at the schedule, what are the most important games this year (and why)?

Illinois’ 2011 football schedule is possibly the most favorable one the Illini have had in recent memory. The Illini enjoy 8 home games, including 6 straight to start the season. With the addition of Nebraska to the Big Ten, divisions will come into play for the first time, changing the championship dynamic for teams. The Illini will play several big games this season. Arizona State’s visit to Champaign will provide the first good look at the 2011 Illini and should be a good barometer for the rest of the season. The Ohio State Buckeyes will also visit Champaign. While the Buckeyes are never an easy foe to defeat, the loss of their head coach, their star quarterback, and likely the burden of heavy NCAA sanctions, makes the game slightly less pivotal.

The two games that stand out the most to me as I look over the schedule are the matchup at Penn State and the visit from Wisconsin. The Buckeyes are not to be discounted, but the loss of so many key personnel gives the Illini, the Nittany Lions, and the Badgers an opening to take over the Leaders division. Illinois was able to win at Penn State for the first time ever last season, but now must return and try to win again against a team and its fans who have not forgotten what happened last year. The Badgers have possibly the best run game in the Big Ten and return many starters from their Rose Bowl team last season as they look to seize the opportunity and take over from the Buckeyes as the dominant program in the Big Ten. If Illinois can win these two games, and provided that it wins the games it is supposed to, it could easily see itself playing in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis come December.

What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2011 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?

As I said earlier, this is the most favorable schedule the Illini have had in quite a while. Of the first four non-conference games, only Arizona State should be a challenge. This is not to say that any game could be overlooked, but I think the Illini take care of business at home and start the season 4-0 headed into Big Ten play. The Northwestern game is a trap game for Illinois. The Illini bullied the Wildcats in last season’s game at Wrigley Field, but that was without their starting quarterback Dan Persa, who tore his Achilles tendon the previous game against Iowa. Northwestern returns more starters than any other team in the Big Ten, and with Persa, they are a legitimate threat. However, because it is the homecoming game for the Illini, I think the crowd will help the team defeat the Wildcats once again.

Indiana should not be much trouble for Illinois, who could start the season 6-0 and still be unranked, having played only one team that made a bowl last season. The second half of the season is where the real test comes for the Illini. I see the Illini defeating Ohio State at home and Purdue on the road, but falling to the Nittany Lions. The Illini then lose at home to Michigan, but recover to surprise Wisconsin when they visit. The Illini end the regular season by extracting some revenge on Minnesota, entering the post season with a 10-2 record. Depending on how the seaons falls for the other Big Ten schools, this could be enough to see the Illini in the championship game against the winner of the Legends division, likely Nebraska or Michigan State, and then in a decent Bowl game.

While this is a serious but optimistic prediction, I do not think that the Illini need 10 wins to call the season a success. In order for 2011 to be called a success, the Illini need to build on the success of 2010. If the team goes 8-5 or better, especially if they win another Bowl game, I think the season will be judged as a success. However, if the Illini fail to make a bowl game, especially if they finish with a losing record, then the season is a bust and the new athletic director will be hard pressed not to fire Zook.

That’s all I have for these questions. On a personal note, I would like to thank Kevin for reaching out to me and getting me involved in this series. For more information on Illinois football and Illinois Men’s Basketball, be sure to check out writingillini.com.

Coming In August: Big Ten Preview

Next Preview: Michigan

2011 Team Previews

ACC- Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Miami, NC State, Wake Forest

Big 12- Baylor, Kansas St, Texas Tech

Big East- Cincinnati, Louisville, USF

Big Ten- Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn St, Purdue

C-USA- East Carolina, Houston,Marshall, SMU, Southern Mississippi, UAB, UCF

Independent- Army

MAC- Akron, Ball St, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Temple, Toledo

MWC- Air Force, New Mexico, UNLV, Wyoming

Pac-12- Arizona, UCLA

Sun Belt- FAU, FIU, Louisiana, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Troy, ULM, Western Kentucky

WAC- Fresno St, Idaho, San Jose St


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