Frank Lenti, Jr., was a redshirt senior in 2007. He walked onto the Illinois program out of Chicago Mt. Carmel fall of 2003 to play receiver. In his first four years, the Illini won only 1, 3, 2 and 2 games per season. But he was part of a brief renaissance, helping lead the 2007 Illini to a tremendous season. He recalls the factors leading to that special year.
"I remember the '06 year, we had a team that was definitely good enough to be a bowl team. That was kind of an upsetting year. That summer and winter, we really dedicated ourselves to making it to a bowl game.
"I think we had 22 seniors, a mix of fifth year guys, four year guys and a couple guys that transferred. We decided we came to the University of Illinois to go to a bowl game, hopefully a big-time bowl game."
If only it was as easy as making a simple decision. In reality, it required much hard work. It also required perseverance and constant focus on team goals.
"That season, we dropped a heartbreaker to Missouri to start the year off. Just for a split second we wondered, 'Is this how it's really gonna be?' And then we went on a run and won five straight.
"We went to Syracuse and won and then beat Penn State and Wisconsin back-to-back, ranked teams at home. And then you're in the running for a Big 10 Championship at that point, which is what we came here to do.
"It was nice to set that goal, but then we dropped back-to-back weeks with Iowa and Michigan. And then you come back and have Ball State at home to become bowl eligible. Step one of our goals, become bowl eligible. We took care of business there.
"It was a point in time where, are we gonna keep getting better, improve and make this a special season? Or are we gonna be satisfied with six wins and finally going to a bowl game? We kept working hard, beating Minnesota, Ohio State there and beating Northwestern. We caught a few breaks and got to go to the Rose Bowl. It was a special way for that senior class especially to end your career."
After two highly emotional home victories over Penn State and Wisconsin, it was not surprising the Illini would have little left in their tanks at Iowa. Lenti agrees there is simply no way for humans to stay at that peak level for every game.
"No there's not. Coach (Ron) Zook says to enjoy it for 24 hours and then get back to work. I think that year, we were probably the better team. But going on the road in the Big 10, it's a tough thing to do.
"Offensively that day, we couldn't get anything going. They got a lead, and it's hard to dig yourself out of a hole on the road. At home, when you make a couple big plays and things go right, momentum comes back to you. The fans, stadium, the environment come back to your side. But when you're on the road, there's not too many people behind you. It's tough to get out of the hole."
And then one loss led to another.
"Exactly. We came back the following week and jumped out to a great start. Fourth play of the game and we have a 7-0 lead. It's funny to think about. You have a lead, and it just doesn't work out for you. We hadn't beaten Michigan at home since 1983, and it was a goal we wanted to take care of."
Those losses remind of this year, where the Illini broke out to a 6-0 record to begin the season. A tough loss at home to Ohio State led directly to lethargic play at Purdue the following week. The Illini then played Penn State down to the wire at Happy Valley. They should have won that game, but destiny favored legendary Joe Paterno.
And just like 2007, the Illini now face a crossroad. Do they go into the tank and be content with a possible minor bowl bid, or do they strive for something special? In 2007, the Illini never gave up.
"Those were definitely a couple tough weeks. But the next week, we had a chance to get our sixth win against Ball State. Even then, we had lost to a MAC team the year before. So we had to prepare like we had been for the first 6-7 weeks."
Lenti says his team came to a conclusion the present Illini team can reach as well. Anything is possible for those who never lose faith in their dreams.
"Right. It's kind of a jumble right now in the league. After Michigan, we knew the best we could do in the Big 10 was finish second, but we said, 'Let's finish this out.' Finish second in the league, and that will help our bowl standing. The Big 10 has a history of getting two BCS teams. Ohio State got back into the BCS championship game, and that opened up the Rose Bowl."
The Rose Bowl is probably out of reach this year, but a major bowl is still a possibility. Lenti's dreams came true in 2007, and he wishes similar success for this year's Illini team.
"The only two ways the season could have been better is if we had beaten USC, and if that was for a National Championship. Growing up in the Midwest, a lot of those seniors I graduated with felt the same way. They grew up watching the Rose Bowl; that was a dream.
"You start that season, with three losses the Rose Bowl is not really in your thought process. Even though the game didn't go our way, it was still a great way to end your career."
In part 3, Lenti shares his thoughts on the current Illini team and what it is like facing a rabid fandom during good times and bad.