Illinois had a great deal of talent on its football team this year, on paper at least. There was a four year starting quarterback in Juice Williams, a certain first round NFL draft pick in receiver Arrelious Benn, a receiver corps expected to be one of the best in the country, a bevy of running backs and a young but supposedly improving defense.
Everyone bragged about how good the team looked coming out of Camp Rantoul. Everyone was in top condition and stronger than ever. Upperclassmen were stepping up in abundance to lead the team. There was more unity of purpose than ever before and a strong motivation to make up for the disappointing 5-7 result in 2008.
The 2009 season started off with Missouri in St. Louis. This was to be the year the Illini finally beat down the insufferable Tigers. Getting off to a fast start was essential because a schedule only Illini opponents could love loomed ahead. A win would help confidence and give hope to a hungry fandom.
And then the Illini stunk up the place and embarrassed their fans on the way to a 37-9 loss. The tally was enough of a problem, but it was the way it happened that really set off Illini naysayers.
The defense left receivers roaming open all over the field, took poor angles and then made poor tackle attempts. The Illini were down just 16-3 at halftime only because it took awhile for Mizzou to open the playbook for rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert. But instead of making halftime adjustments to slow the Tigers, the Illini appeared disheartened and vulnerable. The fight had gone completely out of them, if it had ever been there in the first place.
Even more unexpected, the Illini offense was ultra conservative. New offensive coordinator Mike Schultz seemed to have no plan to attack Mizzou weaknesses, just a desire to hold onto the ball with safe sideline passes and unimaginative runs. Even with the team trailing badly, the playbook wasn't opened up to attempt a catch-up. Quality receivers were roaming all over the field with no balls coming their way.
Some fans gave up on Illinois and head coach Ron Zook before that game was over, and nothing that happened the rest of the year changed their mind. They expected so much and got so little. They were embarrassed to admit they were Illini fans. They were so convinced the team needed a major overhaul, the 45-17 final over Illinois State did nothing to soothe their souls.
The Illini needed two more games against weak nonconference foes to gain confidence and get their mojo back. But after a bye week, they waded into a Big 10 schedule that couldn't have been worse if Bo Schembechler himself had created it to punish the Illini.
Ohio State in Columbus and then home games with Penn State and Michigan State were put into the loss column by fans before the games were played, and with good reason. OSU 30, UI 0; PSU 35, UI 17; MSU 24, UI 14.
In each game, the Illini defense tried to keep it close for awhile, but it caved completely second half when the offense remained inept. Late scores by the Illini made the PSU and MSU games appear close, but the Nittany Lions and Spartans likely let up with big leads.
After two home games produced only disgruntled fans, away games with Indiana and Purdue were next on the docket. Most put these games in the win column preseason, but Illinois continued its downward spiral.
Indiana was leading only 13-7 late in the third quarter when Williams fumbled two plays after hitting Benn for a 31 yard gain. Typical of the entire season, miscues and poor execution continued to turn possible victory into defeat. The Hoosiers hit a 44 yard touchdown pass four plays into the final period. Williams fumbled again, giving IU the ball on the Illini 21. Three plays later, it was 27-7. The game ended 27-14.
On to Purdue and another embarrassment. The Illini took an early lead, a 65 yard Mikel Leshoure run setting up the score. But the Illinois defense gave the score right back, the Boilermakers needing only four plays to traverse 66 yards. The porous Illini defense both bent and broke two more times in the first half.
The fourth period began with Illinois in possession and driving, trailing 24-14. On consecutive plays, Williams ran for 14 yards, Williams lost four yards, a lineman was guilty of a false start, and a Williams draw lost two yards. On the next play, Williams was sacked and coughed up the ball again.
This sequence was similar to a number of possessions throughout the season where poor execution and inexplicable play calling handcuffed the offense. The defense prevented any more scoring, but the offense couldn't come from behind due mostly to its own failings.
Michigan came to town for Varsity "I" weekend, and a majority of Illini fans were clamoring for Zook to be fired sooner rather than later. Athletic Director Ron Guenther took this opportunity to state there would be changes in the football program, but not with the head man. Some were irate at the decision, but the Illini rose up and beat the Wolverines. To those who wanted Zook fired, the win was bad news.
Illinois looked beaten in the third quarter as Roy Roundtree sped toward the end zone to complete a long pass play. But freshman cornerback Terry Hawthorne caught up and tackled the Wolverine on the one yard line. The UI then had perhaps its best defensive moment of the season as it held UM at bay on four consecutive plays.
Buoyed by the huge momentum shift, the Illini went 99.5 yards in six plays as Leshoure sped 70 yards for the go-ahead TD. Suddenly, the Illini could do no wrong. The final score of 38-13 hid temporarily the team's weaknesses.
The Illini then traveled to Minnesota seeking payback for the Gophers' upset win on Homecoming 2008. Williams led them to the first score of the game before twisting his ankle badly. Redshirt freshman Jacob Charest came in and proceeded to have more ups than downs, leading the UI to a 35-32 win. Of course, a late punt block returned for a TD made the game closer than desired, a reminder of Illinois' inconsistent special teams.
That was all the wins the Illini would muster. Charest played the whole way against Northwestern, but inexperience plagued him at times. And the Illini defense continued to show its inability to defend a solid pass offense.
Once the Wildcats put the Illini secondary back on its heals, their weak rushing offense prospered as well. Illini linebackers were passive throughout the season, nonaggressive and hesitant. Opposing offenses prospered running the ball as well as throwing. The NW score was close, and Illlinois had a chance to pull it out at the end, but it was not to be.
In most years, the season would have been over by then. But a bizarre schedule required two more games. A bye week was followed by nonconference games at Cincinnati on a Friday morning after Thanksgiving and at home with Fresno State. Both are bowl teams, and Cincinnati remains unbeaten. Needless to say, the Illini had lost most of their support by then, and the cold weather in early December kept fans home in droves.
The Illini didn't give up, battling the Bearcats before losing 49-36. Some questionable officiating calls aided the Cincinnati effort, but six touchdown passes exploited a helpless Illini pass defense and eliminated doubt as to the outcome. Letting a reserve tight end run free in the secondary repeatedly reminded fans the Illini defensive coaches weren't getting the job done.
The same was true for the Fresno State game. In a shootout with minimal defense on either side, the Illini held a 52-45 when FSU took over on its own 33 yard line with 2:43 to play. Despite taking time off the clock with runs, the Bulldogs moved consistenly downfield. A last gasp pass produced a 19 yard TD, and the two point conversion made the final 53-52.
Throughout the season, the UI found ways of losing games. There may be no single reason for the downfall since there were many leaks in the dike.
The defense gave up far too many big plays. The pass rush was impotent, linebackers were outclassed, and the secondary lacked athleticism and football savvy. Co-defensive coordinators Dan Disch and Curt Mallory often found their calls backfiring on them.
The offense shot itself in the foot repeatedly and lacked any hope of coming from behind. Questionable play calls, a lack of overall discipline, an apparent lack of coaching and team management at times and dubious time management all figured in.
Schultz finally got his ground game going late in the season against weaker defenses, but he never exploited the receiver corps. And the Illini seemed more interested in ending the first half of games meekly instead of attacking for more points. A fear of failure was predominant.
Williams was expected to have his best year, but he never learned to pass efficiently and accurately. He did good things at times, and he broke a number of records. But he misfired on numerous short passes or forced receivers to adjust to make catches. His bullets sometimes lacked touch, just as they had earlier in his career. He ran the ball well, but he ran too often for some peoples' tastes.
Special teams were slightly better than last year, but they were still inconsistent at best. They never once produced a touchdown from kickoff or punt returns, although they did give up a long kickoff return to Cincinnati. The Illini never blocked a punt but had two of theirs blocked. Anthony Santella punted better, but Matt Eller went backward on his placekicking from 2008.
As angry fans ponder the future, it is hard to imagine a bright one. A few players are leaving the program early, recruiting is going poorly as one and maybe several commitments may switch to other schools. Changes in the coaching staff are promised, but will quality coaches want to go to a program that is teetering on the brink of collapse?
At this writing Zook has one year to turn things around, but he lost some of his top players to graduation. Even if Benn returns, the receiver corps will be depleted. The offensive line was average at best, and its top two players graduate. The defense will return most of its players, but more talent and depth are needed. Improved coaching wouldn't hurt either.
It is hard for many Illini fans to see anything but a dark cloud on the horizon.