Midseason Analysis: Why Illini Are So Good

Six down, six to go. And regardless of how it plays out, this had been a season of football to remember for the University of Illinois. But at the midpoint, who has played well, who has surprised, who has stood out, who is most responsible for this great start. There is much to cover on all this and more in Insideillini.com's first midseason report.

Even the most optimistic fan didn't expect this -- 5-1 overall, 3-0 in the league, ranked 18th -- for a team that has struggled so much for so long. But as we look back at the first six games and ahead to the next six, a review is in order as to why it happened.

MOST IMPORTANT GAME -- That would be Syracuse. I wrote before the season that it would be the most important game. I didn't think Illinois would beat Missouri, so I thought this was the first chance to go on the road, play a team from a BCS conference, and show your improvement by winning the game. That performance I believe was the catalyst for everything that has happened since.

PLAYER I CANT WAIT TO SEE MORE -- As excited as I am about Rejus and Rashard and Juice and Vontae and Brent and others, I can't wait to see more of Martez Wilson. Kevin Hardy, who is a friend who lives near me here in Jacksonville, was the second overall pick in the NFL draft. And I think 'Tez will be better.

In fact, I think he will be one of the best linebackers in Illinois history and that is saying something considering the litany of linebackers that have played there. He is 6-4 235, strong and tough. But his speed is ridiculous.

Linebackers coach/co-coordinator Dan Disch told me he is an eyelash from being an every down player and will be one of the best to play college football. I believe him.

MAIN REASONS THEY ARE WINNING -- Two main things -- players who are tired of being doormats and coaches who have done as much with the material before them as I ever have seen.

. Ron Zook told me that before the Illini ran out of the tunnel for the Wisconsin game, it was the first time he could see in their eyes that they expected to win the game. It is the look the great teams have. He said he saw it, really saw it, that day for the first time. He knew they would play like that.

These guys, who always have been one of the bad teams, have gotten a taste of being one of the good teams. And you know what? They like it.

And the coaches have been phenomenal. They have not asked Juice to do too much. They have stayed with the run and controlled passing game and option. They worked Benn just enough in the spring to have him ready.

Defensively, they have used the young players just enough each game to rest the veterans and get them needed experience. Because of it, Brent and Tez and Jerry Brown and others are getting better, playing more.

They have used Vontae to take way James Hardy and Derrick Williams and Travis Beckum and the Syracuse star receiver and forced teams to use other receivers. And they have shaded safeties and dropped zones to protect Dere Hicks. They have blitzed enough to confuse opposing QBs and they have stunted enough to give Will Davis and Derek Walker free runs at the quarterback.

Then, toward the end of the game, when coordinators are tired of going to their second and third receivers, they say screw it, we're going to our best guy, Vontae or now Vontae. And Vontae picks it off. And Illinois wins. What a beautiful thing.

WHY IS MENDENHALL SO GOOD -- The light finally went on for Rashard. Many wondered, since he was so talented, why he played behind Pierre Thomas and E. J. Halsey. Here is why -- they worked harder! Plain and simple. Rashard was never a loafer, always a good person, always did what he was asked. But didn't go the extra mile. The extra reps in the weightroom, the extra mileage on the track. Come in early, leave late. The others did. He did not.

Because of it, he would miss a blocking assigment. Or he would fumble. Or he would miss a hole or not lower his pads to get an extra yard. Rashard always was good when a hole was blown open. But Pierre was much better when you had to make something of nothing.

But Zook and Rashard had a long, long talk before the season. He could see a different Rashard. Reggie Mitchell, always hard on Rashard, could see a difference, too. This was always a great talent and a great kid. But the light needed to come on. I did.

The result was one of the most talented backs in the nation playing up to full potential -- which is a scary thought.

THE LITTLE THINGS -- Maybe this is the most important thing going on with this football team that nobody talks about. When is the last time Illinois fumbled a snap? Or had more than one false start in a game? Or had a six men on the line of scrimmage penalty? Or had a delay of game? Or blew a coverage so badly a receiver was all alone? Or missed a field goal? Or failed to cover a punt?

This team is well-drilled, very efficient, prepared and plays like it's tail is on fire. That is how you win.

SO WHAT MUST IMPROVE -- The main areas are the downfield passing game and pass defense. Obviously, the Illini don't throw the ball down the field particularly well. Part of that is that Juice is just off on some throws, part of it is the receiving corps, other than Benn, is pedestrian and rarely makes highlight reel catches. If your quarterback is off a hair and your receivers aren't good enough to make exceptional receptions, you don't have a good passing game. Juice must get better. Guys have to make plays.

Defensively, this is still a tough, talented, fundamentally sound, but not particularly fast defense. That is why Wisconsin had more than 500 yards of offense, why Chase Daniel, Kellen Lewis, Anthony Morelli and Tyler Donovan hit some plays in the passing game -- only Vontae Davis, among the six or seven defensive backs that the team uses, has closing speed.

WHAT HAPPENS NOW? -- Who knows? Illinois has been so efficient and played so hard and avoided mistakes that the bad game or two are coming. That is a reality. The question? Can they win when they play badly? That usually happens when a team goes from good to really good. Is Illinois there?

We'll know soon enough.

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