What Went Wrong: Analysis of '08 Season

It took awhile, but Dan Disch finally made himself watch a bowl game Saturday. While watching it, the Illinois co-defensive coordinator and linebacker coach started texting his linebackers about how miserable it was watching when the Illini weren't playing. They all agreed. The Illini nation, as a whole, is miserable. But why did it happen? What went wrong? What follows is at least one analysis.

THE CHANGED PSYCHOLOGY - I think this probably was the biggest thing. The ultimate underdog team and ultimate underdog coach parlayed that psychological positioning into one of the most memorable years in recent history at Illinois in 2007. It resulted in a 6-2 Big Ten record, shocking upset of the number one team in the land and an appearance in the Rose Bowl. The Illini were the talk of the town. Hell, of the nation.

And it fit perfectly. Illinois always had been a Big Ten underdog, often winning three or fewer games in the league, rarely having back-to-back winning seasons, often the doormat of their own conference. Zook, too, had been an underdog. A surprise choice to replace Steve Spurrier as the Florida coach in 2002, he was swimming upstream the day he got that job and has been most of his head coaching career. So the underdogs would work together for a spectacular season.

Because of that season, though, the underdog positioning was gone. Now Illinois was the hunted. They were the favorite, the talked about team, ranked to start the season, subject of "The Journey" and all that came with it. And with the target squarely on their chest, the team handled it poorly.

It wasn't lack of effort. It wasn't complacency. Zook and his coaches worked harder than ever. So did the players. But it takes a different mindset to operate without that obvious chip on your shoulder. To play other teams that have it. Everyone learned how hard it was. Everyone tried. But that missing intangible was deadly.

MISSING DEFENDERS, PART ONE -- This is one all of us missed. During spring practice and fall camp, we all saw how athletic Will Davis and Jerry Brown and Derek Walker and Martez Wilson and Vontae Davis and Josh Brent and Donsay Hardeman and so many others looked. They looked like NFL players. We just assumed the defense would be all-world.

What we didn't notice is that six special departed players -- J. Leman, Chris Norwell, Antonio Steele, Kevin Mitchell, Justin Harrison, Justin Sanders -- offered such incredible toughness and leadership that it was almost impossible to replace. In nickel defense, which you play most of the time these days, all six of those players started and rarely came out of the game. That left only five starters, none of whom had the leadership skills of the departed six.

Without them, on the field and off, Illinois defenders struggled. There was no onfield voice to calm them down, or fire them up, or get them in position. To make a big play when needed. It was a big, big blow.

MISSING DEFENDERS, PART TWO -- Along with the departed defenders, Illinois suffered some very tough early attrition among defensive players still on the roster. It started along the defensive front when Sirod Williams, one of the only experienced tackles, went down for the season in camp with a knee injury. That left only David Linquist and Josh Brent who had played tackle, but Brent then missed the first two games for reasons that were never completely explained that involved privacy matters and possibly a suspension. Suddenly, the tackle position became Linquist, a former walkon, and some freshmen.

To bridge the gap, coaches tried Will Davis inside, but he was undersized and also playing hurt. It never worked. It wasn't until game four or five that Brent was back and in a rhythm and freshman Corey Liguet was figuring out how to play.

Meanwhile, the secondary was taking a major hit when Miami Thomas, maybe the best natural cover guy, was lost for the season. And Donsay Hardeman, by a wide margin, the most talented safety, injured a knee and couldn't play in the first three games. Then needed time to adjust to major college football when he did return.

What was left were talented defensive players, but way too many holes in a defense we all thought would be terrific.

PLAYERS NOT DEVELOPING -- And at times, regressing. Vontae Davis was a much better player in 2007 than he was in 2008. Part of that was he had help from veteran safeties, but the numbers don't lie. Teams got burned when they threw at him in '07, not so much in '08. But he was not alone.

Martez Wilson played poorly much of the season and he was expected to step in for Steele and be better. He wasn't. Many were convinced Travon Bellamy would be a star -- he had a horrible season. Will Davis played hurt and was a shadow of the player he was a year before. Ditto Xavier Fulton. Ditto Ryan McDonald. Dere Hicks wasn't as good, for whatever reason. Juice Williams made far more costly mistakes than he had as a sophomore. He regressed to throwing some passes too hard and too high, much like his freshman season.

Again, part of that was the departed players. Juice didn't have Rashard Mendenhall to whom to hand the ball. Vontae and Hicks didn't have help over the top. Fulton and McDonald didn't have Martin O'Donnell in between them and Akim Millington on the other side. Still, players weren't nearly as good. I truly believe it wasn't lack of effort, but they struggled.

COACHES COULDN'T FIND THE ANSWERS -- Just like the players, coaches struggled. All three coordinators -- offensive coordinator Mike Locksley and defensive co-coordinators Disch and Curt Mallory -- were in their first jobs as coordinators. And given the departed players, increased expectations, unexpected struggles of their current players, they couldn't find answers.

When teams started blitzing Juice relentlessly, Locksley and Juice couldn't come up with an answer to halt it. So the blitzing continued and the turnovers starting coming. When teams kept converting third downs and sustaining long drives on the Illinois defense, Zook and his coordinators couldn't find any answers. They tried blitzing. They tried sitting back. It didn't matter. The result was the defense couldn't get off the field. It was frustrating all the way around.

SPECIAL TEAMS -- This probably didn't get enough attention, but it, too, was a kiss of death for this team. Other than freshman placekicker Matt Eller (15 of 20 FG, 8 of 10 from 40 yards or longer), possibly the team's most pleasant surprise, the special teams were abysmal. There were very few returns of note, way too many long returns against Illinois; punter Anthony Santella is another player who regressed and field position really hurt.

Whether it was by a blocked punt, a returned punt or kickoff, a punt downed inside the other team's 10, rarely did Illinois flip field position on a team. They did down Eller's pooch punt deep in Ohio State territory and get the ball back in good field position, but it didn't happen nearly enough.

TURNOVERS -- This is connected to players regressing, but did any team in the nation have as many costly turnovers? Juice had one of the highest interception totals in the country and many of them were very costly. So were his fumbles. So was a key Daniel Dufrene fumble against Minnesota. And others.

Special teams and turnovers contributed to the most alarming stat I saw all year -- of the 49 scoring drives Illinois allowed, a whopping 21 (42 percent) started at the 50 or in Illinois territory. Say what you want about the defense, but there are few defenses in the country that could overcome that.

NEGATIVE MOMENTUM -- All of the above led to this -- once the train started rolling, it was hard as hell to get it stopped. Fans were extremely disappointed the team wasn't following up on its breakout season. You could feel it everywhere in Illini nation. Coaches and players felt it. With each loss the season started feeling worse and worse. Everyone started pressing more and more. Practices began intense. The fun was gone, coaches and players seemed to be more fearful of how bad it would feel to lose rather than just playing free and easy and having fun. That was apparent.

I believe they all felt the pressure. For Zook, it felt too much like Florida, with everyone wondering why they were underachieving. He told me he truly believed they lost three games they should have won, which, as he said, is the worst thing a coach can feel. That means he believes he didn't do his job.

For the players, it was fear they would go back to being the same ol' Illinois, losing and losing. One thing for sure, once you've gotten to the promised land from a lifetime of disappointment, nothing -- I mean nothing! -- is more scary than going back to where you were before.

Because of all of that, they tried so hard to fix it. All of them. Coaches, players, all of them. But sometimes, I think you can try too hard. I would read on this site so many times that how can Illinois come out flat, not ready, not focused. I'll go to my grave insisting that was NEVER the case. It wasn't focus. It was being tight, being worried, concerned that they didn't have the answers.

Part of my job includes being in the public speaking business. I do a lot of it and because of it, I watch a lot of young public speakers. Sometimes I will see them at the podium and realize the moment is too big for them. They freeze a bit and then just aren't very good. Is it because they weren't prepared? Didn't plan? No way. It is because fear of the moment and how bad it will feel if it goes wrong. I think that happened some to Illinois.

SO WHAT NOW? -- That is the $64,000 question, is it not? How do you fix it? Fans had a typical answer -- fire some coaches. Start with all of the coordinators. It is a standard fan response. So often fans lose sight that the same exact coaching staff got this team to the Rose Bowl. For whatever reason, fans are convinced they couldn't do it again.

There will be some attrition. Locksley is the head coach at New Mexico, so you know there will be a new offensive coordintor and new quarterback coach. At least one coach could follow him, although that hasn't been determined. Zook hasn't decided if there will be defensive staff changes, but there could be.

It also wouldn't surprise me to see one clear, designated special teams coach. Mike Woodford was sort of involved in a lot of phases last year, but they were all involved in it. There was never a case when one coach -- Woody or whoever -- was truly in charge of special teams. Truly accountable. I think you may see that change.

One key is to improve player development. Juice has to take care of the ball better. If he has 13 interceptions again, 2009 will be a failed season, too. The new quarterback coach/coordinator has to make that priority No. 1. To me, it is the most important priority the team faces. If Juice throws 22 TDs and has six picks, Illinois is going to have a huge year. If he throws 16 picks, they will miss a bowl again. I really think it is that simple.

Santella has to punt better or they have to find another punter. The safeties have to play better. They have to replace Brit Miller. A running back -- Dufrene, Ford, Pollard, someone -- has to emerge as the key guy.

Most importantly, though, they have to regain the mindset that fueled the incredible run of '07 and the expectations of '08. They have to have fun. They have to play wide open, not fearing what people will say if it goes badly, but just play with wreckless abandon.

The negative momentum is over. The season ended. The key is to begin 2009 without huge expectations, without added pressue, without "The Journey", and just go play.

Illinois, believe it or not, does bring back a relatively talented team. There is a senior quarterback who is a talented player, who is a wonderful leader respected by all of his teammates and has had special moments, which you rarely get to have these days; a receiving corps of Benn, Fayson, Jenkins, Hoomanawanui that has to be one of the best in the nation, if not the best; a pair of tackles in Brent and Liguet, a pair of corners in Hicks and Thomas, that are pretty good.

And yes, there are plenty of holes to fill as well. They key is to have fun filling them, to remember it is a game. That may be the most important factor of all.

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