I was in the middle of writing a Bleeding column last week and for the first time in the five years I have been writing this column I stopped in the middle and didn't finish. Two weeks ago was inarguably one of the worst weeks in the history of Illinois athletics. Between Eric Gordon spurning Illinois at the last minute for Big Ten rival Indiana and Illinois football losing a game at home to a team from the MAC Conference there wasn't much to be happy about.
I was disappointed. I was frustrated. I was discouraged. By the time Kyle Hudson fumbled the ball in the 4th quarter, I was ready to blast the Illinois football program for losing two very winnable games at home and throwing away any momentum they had built up from that improbable win at Michigan State.
It's a good thing that I didn't finish that column and it's a good thing I had a chance to take a step back this week to really think about the 2006 football season. We all screamed before this season started that we wanted to see improvement and that we wanted to see the program heading in the right direction. We all wanted progress and through eight games we have seen just that.
As a fan, it's hard to realize that when your team has lost six of the eight games they have played and when they have given winnable games away with a myriad of mistakes. It's also hard to really isolate this season when the program has lost as many games and has had as many difficult Saturdays as they have in the past four years. But when you really think about it and you really break it down the only thing this year that hasn't gone right in regards to Illinois football is the record.
Before you start shaking your head and dismiss the notion that this team has shown drastic improvement let's take a deeper look at this season on a whole.
(Special thanks in the rest of this Bleeding to UIHuskie5 who took the time to compile all of the statistics you will see in the rest of this article).
Competitive Every Week
Through the first eight games, the Illini have only really been embarrassed once. Other than the Rutgers game (and I guess moments in the Syracuse game) the Illini have been extremely competitive and have really held their own. That alone is a big change from Coach Zook's first year at the helm.
Statistic: In 2005, Michigan State and Penn State combined for 1,145 yards of offense and 124 points against Illinois. In 2006 (in two games the Illini really controlled) they combined for 443 yard and 16 points.
Now I know Penn State isn't the same football team and Michigan State has gone through their share of tough times so far this year, but if those statistics don't show you how much this team has improved I don't know what will.
There's no question that the Illinois defense has shown the most improvement of any unit on this team and to me they are one of the biggest surprises in the entire Big Ten. For years the Illinois defense has been a laughingstock. Ever since 2001 (and maybe before that) the Illinois defense only specialized in bolstering the other team's Heisman candidate's resumes.
This unit is completely different. Under new defensive coordinator, Vince Okruch, they are making plays, they are causing turnovers and most impressively they are taking away the other team's first options. It's really been a joy to watch and it's nice to know that other teams aren't scoring on the Illini with ease anymore.
Statistic: Last year the Illinois defense allowed a passer rating of 162.62, which would rank 118th in the country this year. In 2006, the opponents pass efficiency is 111.99—which puts Illinois 33rd in the country.
Statistic: In 2005, the Illini had 4 interceptions throughout the entire season. This year they have 7 interceptions through 8 games.
Statistic: In 2005, Illinois opponents completed 66% of their passes while this year they are only completing 54.2%,
Those numbers tell the story, but the real story behind those numbers has been the improved play of the defensive line and the secondary.
Vontae Davis: I know I have talked about this in previous columns, but let me say this one more time—this kid is going to be one of the best corners—if not the best—in the Big Ten in a few years. The play he made against Penn State—where he sidestepped/jumped over a block and made an open field one-on-one tackle against the Penn State wide receiver was the type of play that only special players make.
Vontae's impact has been incredible and he is a big reason why the defense has improved in those three areas. In addition to Davis's impact, I think overall Alan Ball has done a pretty good job this year. I thought he might have played his best game in an Illinois uniform this past Saturday against Penn State.
Improved D-Line: With the emergence of Derek Walker (5.5 sacks already) and the steady play of the rest of the line, the opposing quarterbacks don't have all day to sit back and wait for their receivers to get open. As Coach Zook continues to recruit bigger and faster players for the line it will continue to help the Illini defense.
Statistic: The Illinois defense is allowing 3.6 yards a carry—a 1.9 yard per rush improvement over 2005. Illinois is allowing 106 fewer yards per game on the ground this year.
Statistic: The Illinois defense is holding opponents to a 3rd down conversion rate of 37% compared to a mind-boggling 51% in 2005.
Statistic: The Illinois defense ranks 3rd in the Big Ten in red zone defense only allowing their opponents to score71.4% of the time.
J. Leman: What can you say? After eight games, J Leman leads the Big Ten in tackles and as averaging just less than 11 tackles a game. If you would have told me that Leman would have been above guys like Klinkenborg, Posluszny, Connor and Laurinaitis I would have thought you were crazy!
Leman has been the anchor to what have been a much improved front seven and his play this year has been way above what anyone could have expected.
Statistic: The net difference for Illinois in total offense and total defense ranks 34th in the country ahead of such teams such as Alabama, Florida State, Iowa, UCLA, Penn State, Georgia, Auburn, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, and many more notables.
Statistic: Illinois is ranked 41st in the country in total offense and 40th in the country in total defense. They are the ONLY team in the country ranked that highly in both of the rankings with a losing record.
Statistic: Illinois has outgained 6 of 8 opponents so far this season while only outgaining 2 of 11 opponents in 2005.
Those three statistics really are mind boggling! It's really hard to believe that all of those things are true considering the Illini are 2-6. The combination of playing a lot of young and inexperienced players, awful special teams and the inability to not turn the ball over has cost this team time and time again.
A Few Disappointing Things
Offensive Line: I should start out by saying that the offensive line has done a pretty good job of run blocking throughout the first eight games. Both Pierre Thomas and Rashard Mendenhall have had pretty good seasons so far and the offensive line deserves a good amount of credit for that.
On the flip side they have been extremely disappointing in the pass protection category and it has gotten worse and worse as the season has gone along. The addition of Akim Millington was supposed to bolster this unit and for the most part they have left Juice running for his life. If this offense wants to reach that next level they are going to need the offense line to play much, much better.
Wide Receivers: I don't think any of us expected amazing things out of this wide receiving corp. but we did expect them to catch the football. Too many times this year in a big spot they have dropped passes that have stalled drives and ruined momentum. I know they have had a tough adjustment to catching passes from a quarterback that throws the ball much harder than his predecessors, but overall this group has had a disappointing first eight games.
Special Teams: I am not breaking any ground here, but the special teams have cost this team time and time again. With a better special teams unit, Illinois would have a great shot to be 4-4 or even 5-3 right now. I know the special teams is going to be vastly improved as this team brings in better and better athletes, but they should have been better this year and I think the coaching staff deserves some blame for that.
It will be interesting to see how this team handles the next two games against Wisconsin and Ohio State, because it might be the two toughest Big Ten games they will play all season. Will they remain competitive? Will they hang with Ohio State and keep the game close at Memorial Stadium? Will they find a way to win two more games to get that magic number of four a lot of fans talked about before the season is done?
Only time will tell with those questions, but so far through eight games—even though the record doesn't show it—this team has shown progress and that needs to be recognized.
Musings from Week 8
**I have a lot to say about the Eric Gordon de-commitment and I still can't believe he is going to be suiting up for the Hoosiers. I am going to take some time next week to talk about the situation, but I didn't want to take away from the positive stuff with the football program by putting all of that in this article**
**Speaking of positives, it's hard not to get excited about what's going on away from the field in regards to football recruiting. The momentum is continuing to build and it seems like Coach Zook and company are going to line up a second straight big time class. I know it's a long way away from signing day, but I love what I am hearing from the recruiting trail**
**I—for one—am not going to get excited about Derrick Rose visiting this weekend for the Orange & Blue Scrimmage. Call me a pessimist, but I have been this script before! I am not sure why Reggie Rose and Derrick are making this trip, but I think in the end we will again watch the best player in the state go elsewhere**
**The Illini head to Madison this week to play a solid Wisconsin Badgers team who is second in the Big Ten in scoring offense and scoring defense. The 7-1 Badgers have basically dominated every game they have played except for their one loss against the Michigan Wolverines.
The Illini defense is better, but this will be a true test. Wisconsin—as usual—has a great running game and their offense has really been points on the board this year. I think the Illini will keep it close early, but eventually the Badgers will be too much at home for the Illini to handle.