Camp Rantoul this August was different from last year in several respects. First of all, it wasn't as hot as last year. Ironically, the 2008 team suffered mightily the one day the temperature peaked above 90 degrees with high humidity. This contrasted to the 2007 squad that took one miserable day after another in stride.
This may be an insignificant point, but the 2007 Illinois squad was extremely hungry after several losing seasons, and their large group of seniors wouldn't let anyone on the squad let down or take plays off. They would have handled 110 degrees without complaint because they knew every practice day was important for them to reach their goals. Having to work in extreme heat only made them more determined to transform suffering into success. It toughened them.
There was no indication the 2008 squad lacked hunger. They said all the right things, and they clearly didn't want to fall back the year after a major bowl game. But they weren't as needy as their predecessors simply because 2007 was an extreme situation. This year's squad wanted a great season, but they didn't need it quite as much. It is impossible to quantify this factor, but it may have played a role in an inconsistent season.
Another difference was the number of practice fights at Camp Rantoul in 2007. They were numerous and often included seniors and upperclassmen who had suffered through several losing seasons and were fired up to reverse the trend. Every day was competition at an extreme, with Illini players on edge to get started and create the winning season they dreamed about.
None of these fights lasted long or hurt team chemistry, but they demonstrated the practice intensity of the 2007 squad. This fall, there were few if any fights. For that matter, there was less hitting in general as the coaching staff wanted to maintain the team's health prior to the Missouri tilt. The lack of intensity in practice may have contributed to a lack of toughness and perseverence in the games.
Fans don't always know this, but preseason fan behavior can sometimes help one predict the future. At least, it can when the future is bright and fulfilling. The 1985 Chicago Bears taped the "Superbowl Shuffle" long before they qualified for the playoffs, but they and their fans sensed the Super Bowl was in their future.
Illini fans in the Rose Bowl seasons of 1963 and 1983 bought tickets enthusiastically and spoke positively about their teams' prospects long before the results were in. The same is true for the magical Big Ten Championship and Sugar Bowl berth for Ron Turner's 2001 team.
Fans were equally enthusiastic for 2007. The North End Zone was completed, all the reduced-price horseshoe seats went fast, and the team had promise. Memorial Stadium approached sellouts for the first time in several years.
There wasn't the same buzz this year. For whatever reason, there were no more fans watching Camp Rantoul practices this year than last. One would think fans would want to get close to their new heroes, but the excitement simply wasn't there. Perhaps they knew something without realizing it.
Sure, there were sellouts. But many fans talked more enthusiastically about the completion of the West side construction project and the introduction of the top players in Illinois history than the upcoming season. People expected success, but they weren't bubbling over with excitement.
Personnel problems, injuries and off-the-field incidents began right at the start of practice and continued throughout the season. Only two players lost the entire season to surgery, but seven players either didn't make grades or had problems with the NCAA Clearinghouse. All would have provided depth if eligible.
This was especially true when a number of Illini players developed nagging injuries that never healed. They played with sprained ankles, dislocated shoulders, pinched nerves, strained knees, pulled muscles, etc. Their courage must be admired, but they couldn't provide their best effort the entire season. At least 18 Illini had nagging injuries that affected their play during part or all the season.
Illinois seemed to have enough depth to absorb losses, but it didn't. When you add in 6 or more players who were suspended or had to sit out one or more games with personal problems, depth became a major concern. These problems are not unique to Illinois or a sign of problems within the team. But championship teams seem to have fewer problems, problems in areas with extra depth, or fortunate timing to help them win the war of attrition with their competitors.
Illinois wanted the Missouri game badly, but its proud defense was picked apart by the great Chase Daniels. Not only did the loss create an emotional letdown for the next two games, it was the beginning of a confidence drain that limited the defense the rest of the year.
Teams need to believe they are conquering heroes to play their best, especially on defense. When the Illini showed the weaknesses that Missouri exposed, especially in the middle of their pass defense, they gave future opponents a template for beating them, and they knew it. They worked hard in practice to make improvements, but the fear of failure was already creeping in, and it gained more credibility with each future mistake.
Another factor that hurt the Illini was the big target on their backs. During the Rose Bowl run, Illinois gained revenge on six of the seven opponents who had beaten them the year before. It was a big part of their motivation. This year, the shoe was on the other foot.
They won payback games with Michigan and Iowa, but they lost to vengence-minded Penn State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Northwestern. A team must be especially powerful to overcome the extra motivation generated by those conquered previously. Illinois has plenty of payback in mind for next season, but it hurt more than helped this year.
Illinois was shocked by Minnesota, whom they beat easily last season in the Metrodome. In a game that may have been as karmic as frustrating, the Gophers spoiled Homecoming while being outplayed most of the way. Mistakes at inopportune times sealed Illinois' fate, but more went on during that game than most realize.
Minnesota is coached by former Illini Tim Brewster, a Mike White protege. Perhaps due to a lack of self-confidence, White preached intimidation to his players. He didn't mind late hits and personal fouls since they set the tone and scared the opposition. Illinois fans ignored their team's bad reputation as long as White brought them victories.
Brewster's bunch acted like bullies, tricking Illinois into a couple retaliation fouls. And their overall attitude on the field worked to their advantage. Illinois will be ready for these tactics next year, but they had to learn a hard lesson.
Egos are fragile things. Even predictable losses drain the confidence of a team. Confidence is the most important ingredient in the violent game of football. When players begin to doubt themselves, they play more tentatively and with less abandon. After several losses, the insecurity mounts to the point they are vulnerable to mediocre teams as well as great ones.
In 2007, the players sensed the momentum of success was on their side. They had become accustomed seeing the ball bounce the wrong way and calls go against them in previous losing seasons. So they could see a clear contrast when they started winning. The momentum they had going for them was like riding the crest of a wave that knew where it was going. It is easy to maintain and improve confidence when "Big Mo" is on your side.
But this year, strange things started happening again. Two consecutive kickoffs hooked badly out of bounds, something the kicker had never experienced before. Two muffs on kick returns ended up giving Illinois terrible field position even though the returners knew better. Questionable officiating calls and extreme momentum reversals negatively impacted several big games. After awhile, the team began to think it was snake-bit.
What tends to happen in these cases, and what likely happened to Illinois, was the team began playing to keep from losing instead of playing to win. Football is a power game, and the spoils go to the more powerful team with supreme confidence. Losing breeds a feeling of failure, which breeds tentative play and less power.
All year long, Illinois coaches and players held the mantra that they were not a one-hit wonder. They worked their butts off to prove they were worthy of the Rose Bowl and national recognition. But instead of playing each game with boundless joy and optimism, they burdened themselves with their own excess expectations. And they heard all the negativism from a fanbase that also had high expectations, making them feel even less secure with every loss.
In the Western Michigan and Northwestern games especially, they played like they feared losing. When you play to keep from getting beat, you defeat yourself. The Illini were like the 800 meter runner in the semifinals of a big track meet. They only needed to finish in the first four places to make the finals, so they played to keep from missing the finals. Sometimes, that strategy backfires and you get passed near the finish line. Illinois was passed and failed to make a bowl game.
On paper, Illinois seemed a good bet for a winning season. But many things must fall in place to do that. This year, things just didn't go their way often enough for them to compensate for their problems. And by the end of the season, their failures just snowballed on them.
Leadership issues were also likely part of the problem this year. The Rose Bowl team had a large number of seniors, many of whom played a leadership role because they were all so hungry for victories. Even if they weren't team leaders, senior reserves pushed those ahead of them and behind them at their positions.
J Leman received most of the credit for leadership last year, but he had lots of help. Justin Harrison, Kevin Mitchell, and several others supported Leman defensively, and Martin O'Donnell, Akim Millington, Russ Weil, and DaJuan Warren were among those who led the way offensively. Graduated reserve defensive tackle Mike Ware was seen roaming the sidelines of home football games this fall, and he gave exuberant high fives to Illini after a big win. He seemed more excited than they were.
The 2008 team had one leader who stood out, Brit Miller. He was the team spokesman and star of several "The Journey" shows on the Big Ten Network. He did an outstanding job, but others deferred leadership to him.
There were fewer seniors this year, and several were the quiet type. They weren't able to motivate the team and keep all players focused on their responsibilities on and off the field as consistently as the previous seniors. A football team needs numerous leaders, not just one dominant one, and this may have contributed to the problems.
It is easy to focus on poor play-calling decisions, mistakes at critical times, officiating calls, inconsistent or deficient play, etc. when assigning blame for a poor season. Everyone wants answers, and some are anything but forgiving for imperfections. But perhaps those were just symptoms and not the true causes for a 5-7 season.
If the Illini had it to do over, they might win 3-4 more games. But for this season, given the realities of their team and schedule, it just wasn't meant to be.