Illinois fans weren't asking for bowl games and big wins. All they were looking for was to see some life and to see some progress on the field. Now that the 2006 football season is over, it's time to look back at the good, the bad and the ugly from what was an encouraging season on the field and a discouraging season in the win column.
The Illinois football team competed and they competed consistently. There weren't a lot of moments during this season where you looked on the field and said, ‘Illinois didn't deserve to be on the same field as their opponent.' After looking listless against Rutgers in their first big game of the season, the Illini never again looked outmatched on the field and that alone was a sign of progress.
They went through what we all thought was going to be a deadly stretch (@ Penn State, @ Wisconsin and home to #1 Ohio State) leading the first two games at half and completely dominating the best team in the country in the second half. At the end of the Ohio State game, I couldn't have been more excited about the direction of this football program.
Leave it to the Illinois football program to take those feelings and completely drain them away with two awful season-ending performances against Purdue and Northwestern. This team had an opportunity to take an incredible amount of momentum into the off-season and they let it completely slip away with a turnover filled performance against Purdue and a lackluster effort against Northwestern.
It's hard to really put a ‘bow' on this season. On one hand, I love what I saw. The defense was better than anyone could have ever imagined. J. Leman showed he is one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten. Vontae Davis proved that he is an absolute stud. We saw flashes from Juice, Cumberland, Rashard Mendenhall and others that made you shake your head thinking about how good this offense could be in the future.
We asked them to show progress and they did. Up until the final two games, they got better each and every game and they showed a lot of promise.
But along with that promise came a great deal of heartache. They started the season completely undisciplined (to the coaching staff and team's credit they were much better in the second half of the season when it came to penalties) and they turned the ball over a zillion times. Their special teams were a disaster, the receivers dropped a ton of passes and most importantly they never learned how to finish a game. In a ‘turn around the program' situation like the one we have at Illinois, the hardest thing to do is to learn how to win. This team certainly didn't turn the corner in that category.
I love the direction this program is going. The athletes are getting better, the team is getting stronger and they are no longer getting pushed around. I always thought year three was the most important year in a coach's tenure and I think this team showed you enough in year two to be very excited about year three of the Zook era.
With all of that said, I just can't get 2-10 out of my mind. This team played Syracuse, Northwestern, Indiana, Eastern Illinois and a down Big Ten and only was able to muster up two wins.
Here is the 2006 Illinois football season in a nutshell.
In the win column, this season was a disappointment.
In the progress department, this season was a success.
J Leman: The biggest surprise of the 2006 season by far. He was all over the football field and he was star of a defense that no one expected to be as good as they were. Cousin Leman led the Big Ten in tackles and had games at the end of the year that reminded you of Kevin Hardy and Dana Howard in their glory years.
Speaking of Leman how in the world did the Big Ten coaches not name him a first team All-Big ten linebacker? There is absolutely no way that he wasn't one of the best three linebackers in the conference this year—certainly not in the number of tackles that he had and certainly not in the impact he had on the entire defense.
Quite honestly, I thought it would be the media who would drop the ball on this one but you got to give them credit. They got it right—there is no doubt J Leman deserved to be on the first team.
The Entire Defense: I know they struggled in the last two games against a spread offense, but throughout the entire season the Illinois defense was nothing short of incredible—especially when you consider their performance over the past few years.
The D-Line didn't get pushed around, the linebackers made tackles and the defense made plays. They stuffed Penn State's running game, they stuffed Wisconsin's running game and they took the number one team in the country—with four of the best offensive players in the entire Big Ten—and completely shut them down for a half.
The Illinois defense in 2006 was a very pleasant surprise.
Vontae Davis: I don't think you could have asked for more from a freshman. Vontae Davis was so good in 2006 that by the middle of the year the opposing offenses barely even threw his way.
As an Illinois football fan, I feel great knowing that for at least the next two years Davis is going to be roaming the secondary.
Wide Receivers: Heading into the season no one thought the Illinois football wide receivers were going to be making game breaking plays, but we all thought that they could consistently catch the football. We were wrong. Time and time again this year—many of them in big spots—the Illinois wide receivers dropped passes. They never seemed to get in sync with Juice and the pace of his throws and as a unit they had a disappointing season.
Offensive Line: The line did a pretty good job all year blocking for Pierre Thomas and Rashard Mendenhall, but their pass blocking was horrific. All year long Juice and Tim Brasic were running for their lives. This was a unit that most Illinois fans—including myself—felt pretty good about heading into the 2006 season and they seemed to get worse as the year went along.
To me the offensive line becomes the biggest question mark heading into next year. Can they plug in some of the younger guys to make sure that Juice gets some time in 2007 to throw the ball down field?
Special Teams: I am not even sure ugly is a strong enough word for how bad the Illinois special teams was this past season. The kick return coverage was bad (cost them a game against Indiana), the punting was potentially as bad as any team in the country (cost them the field position battle all year long) and while Reda had a pretty good season he missed big kicks in some of the games that Illinois should have won.
Heading into the off-season, fixing the special teams has to be Coach Zook's number one priority. Being a former special teams coach in the NFL, he has to take some blame for this year's unit and he has to be sick thinking how much this unit cost the 2006 Illini.
Turnovers: Turnovers—once again—absolutely killed the Illinois football team. This was a team that turned the ball over four times in five plays (has to be some sort of record) against Purdue.
Take a look at these statistics (that were taken before the final game against NW)
- Illinois was 117 out of 119 D-I teams in turnovers lost
- Illinois was 116 out of 119 D-I teams in turnover margin
- Illinois was 118 out of 119 D-I teams in fumbles lost
DEPARTING SENIOR CLASS
The senior class of 2006 isn't a class that will go down in the annals of Illinois football history. They lost a lot of games, they were part of the worst Big Ten stretch in the history of the program and a majority of their class was long gone before this year started.
Even with that said the guys who stuck around and continued to fight deserve a lot of credit. They stuck with this program through a coaching change and they hopefully laid the foundation for a lot of good years to come.
Here are some thoughts on just a few of the seniors who have played their last games at Illinois.
Pierre Thomas: An absolute warrior. If you want to see the kind of heart and toughness that Pierre brought to the football field each and every Saturday just take a look at his touchdown in the Purdue game. He was hit once, stopped and hit again but he never kept moving his legs as he wrestled his way into the end zone.
Throughout his four years in the orange and blue, Pierre Thomas almost NEVER went down on the first hit. He battled, he fought and he scratched for every inch every time he got the ball. There have been a lot of great running backs who have lined up in the backfield in the history of Illinois football, but I don't know if there is any other back in the long history of this program that was tougher than Thomas.
I don't think he was given the ball enough last year and I know I sound like a broken record, but I don't think he was given the ball enough this year as well. Thomas might never go on to play a down in the NFL, but I will always remember him as one of the toughest football players I have ever seen.
E.B. Halsey: If you would have asked me a few years ago, I would have bet you I would be waxing poetic about E.B. on the football field. I can remember his first game against Missouri like it was yesterday and remember thinking to myself that E.B. would be an absolute stud before all was said and done.
He never looked like the same player after his freshman year. He seemed to get slower and less sure of himself as the years went on. In a lot of ways, his career was similar to Cory Bradford's on the basketball court in that he had his best year as a freshman and never looked to have that same quickness as the years went on.
The big difference is that Cory Bradford had some incredible moments during his senior year and E.B. really didn't have any. Halfway through the Big Ten season, Illinois fans were screaming to get him off the punt return/kick return teams so he wouldn't fumble the ball. Honestly, it was sad watching E.B. return punts this year. Here was a team captain and a team leader completely losing all of his confidence and looking like a freshman who was thinking too much.
What I will remember about E.B. was his leadership ability and character as a football player. Even through his disappointing senior season, he never complained. He never whined about not getting the carries he used to, he never cried about getting enough touches and from all accounts he remained the same great teammate that he was from the day he first stepped on campus. I had the pleasure to interview and talk with E.B. on a number of occasions and you aren't going to find a more stand-up guy.
I will remember the fight he showed with that incredible run in Zook's first game against Rutgers and I will remember that long before there was Regis Benn picking Illinois over Big Ten programs there was E.B. committing to Illinois over Notre Dame and Rutgers.
Alan Ball: The one you have to give Alan Ball is that he was always consistent—whether he was knocking down a pass, getting beat or missing a tackle he was always going to come up talking trash!
Alan Ball drove you crazy as an Illinois football fan. For every great play he would make it seemed like he would follow it up with a few missed tackles. He just never seemed to be able to put together a good stretch of games and he was an easy target for Illini fans. I thought Ball had a good year in 2006 and probably made more plays than we all realize but he still was inconsistent in his pass coverage and tackling.
Josh Norris: Norris was one of those guys who in height, weight and looks symbolized the problem with the Ron Turner era. He was one of those guys you looked at and wondered why he wasn't playing on the line in the MAC conference.
Through hard work and determination, Norris turned himself from one of those players into a solid Big Ten contributor. In the last two year, Norris quietly did a very good job on the line and made plays that didn't always show up on the stat sheet. In years to come, I am expecting to see a lot of lineman who look the part a lot more than Josh Norris did but I can only hope they come with the same work ethic and determination he had.
Tim Brasic: He never had the arm to play quarterback in the Big Ten and he certainly didn't have the size. He was a guy who walked-on at Illinois, worked hard and was finally given his shot in Zook's first year at Illinois. While his play was never spectacular, Brasic never stopped competing. I loved his toughness and I loved his fight.
Brasic was another guy—just like E.B.—who lost his starting job but never complained. If you watched the video of the locker room after Illinois beat Michigan State, Brasic was the first guy there greeting everyone as they walked in. He was that kind of guy and that kind of teammate.
GOODBYE TO GRABO
Of all the people not returning from the 2006 football season, the one that I will miss the most is Jim Grabowski. After decades on the Illinois broadcasts, Grabowski decided during this season that this would be his last one in the Memorial Stadium broadcast booth.
Grabowski was as good of a color guy as you could find. He wore his heart on his sleeve, he was passionate each and every Saturday, he knew the game, he bled Orange and Blue and most importantly he told it like it is. If the Illini were making a mistake and playing badly you better believe Grabo wasn't going to toeing the company line.
If you were frustrated watching Illinois football on a Saturday, you could turn on the radio and Grabo was just as frustrated as you. It's really too bad he didn't get to go out on a better note watching a better football team on their way to a bowl game.
It will be weird next year to turn on the radio and not hear his voice. I only hope the next guy they bring on board will be half as good as Grabo was.
BASKETBALL HAS BEGUN
Oh yeah, Illinois basketball is underway. There has been so much talk about football in these Bleeding columns that I have basically ignored that Bruce Weber's Illini have started the year and started the year about as good as anyone could have hoped.
In future columns, I am going to talk a lot more this basketball team and the 2006-07 season but here are a few early season thoughts.
- Injuries: I certainly wasn't thinking this when it was announced that Brian Randle had to have surgery and that Jamar Smith would be out for a few weeks with a high ankle sprain, but I think these injuries are going to be the best thing that happens to this basketball team. Having the two top scorers out makes the Chester Frazier's, Calvin Brock's and Trent Meacham's of the world play a ton of minutes and be forced to score.
They are getting a chance to play and gain confidence and that added confidence for guys like Calvin Brock are going to make this a better basketball team come Big Ten season.
- Schedule: I am all for scheduling some ‘cupcake' opponents early in the season—especially when you have a young team like Illinois does—but it drives me crazy not to be able to see any of the games. This team is five games into the season and I doubt anyone outside of the close proximity to Champaign has had a chance to see more than two games (and some have seen zero). I can't wait to get this week going so fans across the country can catch their first glimpse of this team.
- Calvin Brock: Great to see Calvin come out and start this season with a little bit of confidence. He has been a forgotten guy on the bench in the last two seasons and people forget that he is only a sophomore this year. It seems like his shooting and defense has improved and even when Rich and Jamar are firmly back in the line-up this team is going to need Calvin to provide some important minutes off the bench
- Point Guard Play: It's too early to get excited and we have to see it against better competition, but so far the combination of Meacham/Frazier has done a really good job filling in at the point. I don't care who you are playing against hitting 8 three's is very impressive and Frazier—for the most part—has taken care of the ball and showed an improved shooting touch (from everywhere but from the free-throw line).
Again only time will tell, but so far I have been impressed with the play from the point.
- Perfect Record: I know the Illini haven't played the world's toughest schedule so far this season, but to be 7-0 playing a majority of those games without your three best players/scorers is pretty darn impressive. Going into this past weekend, I thought Illinois would lose one of the games they would play. This is a team that has played a lot of games in the past few weeks and I thought it would finally catch up to them.
It wasn't pretty and it certainly wasn't easy, but the Illini came away with two victories and a tournament championship. You have to give Coach Weber, his staff and the entire team a lot of credit for getting through the first phase of their non-conference schedule unscathed.
- Terrapins coming to town: I can remember sitting down on the floor a few years back in the Cole Fieldhouse watching Illinois get beat up by the Maryland Terrapins. I remember the Terrapin fans—who by the way could be the worst group of fans in the entire country—riding me and the Illini families sitting in the Illinois section. It was ugly and it was worst than the final score indicated.
I couldn't wait to get payback and bring them back to the Assembly Hall and finally that time has come. On Tuesday evening, the Terrapins come to the Hall to play Illinois in the Big Ten/ACC challenge and the Hall should be rocking.
Maryland will be by far the best team Illinois has faced all season and it should be interesting to see how they deal with the Terrapin athleticism. I expect a close game, but that the Hall crowd will be able to will the Illini to victory.
Illinois - 69 Maryland- 65