Illinois had high hopes for the 2009 season. To a man, they all really believed they would reverse the 5-7 audit from 2008 and go to a major bowl game. The target was now off their backs, many starters were returning, and they had enjoyed an amazing summer of leadership development plus strength and conditioning.
Camp Rantoul had to be considered a success, at least until injuries and illness began to intervene. Cornerback Miami Thomas, still somewhat tentative from major shoulder and knee surgeries, tore the ACL in his other knee during camp. And star offensive guard Jon Asamoah went down with mononucleosis and was at less than full strength through the first few games of the season.
Still, the Illini were pumped about their upcoming Missouri game in St. Louis. They were tired of losing to the Tigers and were convinced this was their year. They pointed to Mizzou all summer; it was an all-consuming passion with them. Pregame practices continued to go remarkably well, and the principals were convinced they would not only beat Missouri but dominate them on national TV.
Then, the third play of the game, Arrelious Benn suffered a high ankle sprain that forced him to the locker room. The entire Illini offense was designed to exploit Benn's multiple skills both as a receiver and rusher. He and quarterback Juice Williams were the unquestioned leaders of the offense. Seeing him go down was a devastating blow to Illini psyches. One could feel the depression on the field.
It was also true the offense was uncertain of its new offensive coordinator Mike Schultz. He had kept the basics of the offense from last year, but subtle changes designed to improve the running game took awhile to perfect. Talented receivers were asked to block more and catch fewer passes, something that didn't sit well with them.
When they saw Schultz call an actual game that mattered, some became disillusioned. He was ultra conservative, a contrast to his predecessor Mike Locksley. Where his philosophy and Locksley's parted, some Illini lost their trust in the calls.
Williams said something significant after the Michigan game, the Illini's first BCS win after nine straight losses. He said he finally decided to trust the play calling. He said if Schultz called a run on third and three, he decided to stop questioning the call and run it. This helped, but it took him into the 8th game to realize it.
The Illini defense proved porous and vulnerable to a passing attack in the Missouri game also. Receivers were wide open, tackling was shoddy, and the Tigers used big plays to dominate the game and embarrass the entire Illini Nation. Whatever fight the defense had in it to begin the game was lost by mid third quarter when it was obvious the offense would continue to force running plays instead of trying to catch up.
One culprit in the Illini secondary was senior safety Donsay Hardeman. In his defense, he was coming off serious neck surgery that made him question the value of playing football. He was tentative and lacked confidence. His forte was his big hits, but he was told to wrap up instead of trying to knock people over. He wasn't comfortable doing that, and he missed several important tackles.
Hardeman was never the same again. He "tweaked" his neck two more times during the season, calling it quits for good after the second one. He was the most experienced safety on the team, and he was an emotional leader. Not having him at full strength hurt.
Illinois defeated Illinois State handily 45-17, but the pass defense continued to be exposed. And Williams pulled up lame with a quadraceps pull on the first offensive play as he sped for what looked like a 50 yard touchdown scamper. Eddie McGee came in and led the Illini to victory. It took Williams several weeks to get back in top shape.
Starting middle linebacker Martez Wilson went down with a neck injury that required surgery after that game. He was by far the most experienced linebacker on the team, and he was considered the most athletic and best leader among the linebackers. Everyone looked up to him, so losing him had a psychological effect on the whole secondary.
Injuries to key performers must be considered in any season review. Going into the season, the top performers were expected to be Williams, Benn, Jarred Fayson, A.J. Jenkins, Michael Hoomanawanui, Asamoah, Jason Ford, Mikel Leshoure, Corey Liuget, Josh Brent, Martez Wilson, Hardeman, Dere Hicks and Miami Thomas. Every one of them missed one or more games or were at less than 100% the whole season.
Williams later suffered a high ankle sprain that caused him to miss one game and most of another and was at less than full strength for the last two games. Benn played on his bad sprain. While he performed admirably, he was never again 100%, and offensive adjustments were required due to his limitations. Hoomanawanui missed several games with a high ankle sprain.
Fayson and Jenkins missed several games with injuries, and Jenkins eventually quit. Ford sprained his ankle in the Missouri game, and he and Leshoure had occasional ankle and other problems. Liuget sprained his ankle, missing one game and taking awhile to get back to full strength. Brent missed a full month of summer conditioning and no doubt suffered for it. Hicks had two offseason pelvic surgeries and never got his entire quickness back.
All teams suffer injuries. But when the players you count on most all go down, it hurts both performance and morale. Illini players had fragile egos to begin with, resulting in part from their 7 losses in 2008. Memories of past failures and a fear of not getting back to Rose Bowl quality weakened their self-confidence. They needed leaders to make plays so they could carry out their proper roles.
The Missouri embarrassment hurt morale as well. Players were bombarded with questions from students on campus and had to avoid reading negative stories about themselves. They had worked so hard for so long and had put so much importance into winning that first game, that a major failure called all their hopes into question.
A bye week before the start of the Big 10 season allowed some bruises to heal, and it gave the Illini two weeks to prepare for a loaded Ohio State squad at the Horseshoe. The UI had to win the game to keep their goals within reach, and they prepared for the game of their lives.
Playing in a steady rain, early Illini mistakes destroyed confidence in a 30-0 loss. Players later referred to the Missouri and Ohio State games as emotional back breakers. They went from expecting a bowl game to fearing a repeat of 2008. Without confidence, home games losses to quality Penn State and Michigan State squads was predictable.
Williams struggled early in the season. He had made major improvements each of his first three seasons, but he seemed to be going backward. It was obvious he had lost confidence and was pressing to make plays. He is a highly emotional, deep feeling person who tries to put the pressures of the world on his shoulders. When he does that, he tightens up and plays worse.
It is also true he reverted in his response to a pass rush. His positive transformation midway through his sophomore year was the result of him accepting the fact he would get hit whether he stayed in the pocket or not. This allowed him to stay there long enough to find and hit open receivers.
Late last season, opponents discovered they could disrupt Williams by preventing the deep pass and blitzing him frequently. When he couldn't sustain long drives through short and intermediate passes, they had him cornered and he felt it. He began to panic in the pocket like in his early years. He would flush instead of taking the extra second to find an open man. When he did throw, his passes were often wild or difficult to catch.
Schultz was brought in as offensive coordinator to help Williams perfect the short passing game and utilize his great option skills to maximum effect. But Williams was more accustomed to Locksley and likely didn't warm to Schultz's style until midseason. One could tell he wasn't relaxed and comfortable by the way he would miss short sideline passes, throwing behind or over the receivers.
The 2009 season began the same way 2008 ended for Williams, with no improvement in site. Zook and his offensive staff had to bite the bullet and replace Williams with Eddie McGee for the Michigan State game. While McGee had been a serviceable backup to Williams each of the last couple years, his first start was a disaster. The game was lost before it began.
Starting 1-4, the Illini had no gas left in the tank for beatable Indiana and Purdue teams on the road, even with Williams back in charge. Had they felt better about themselves, they knew they could have won both assignments. Losing those games was the bottom of the barrel for the Illini Nation.
All along, the players and coaches stated they couldn't understand what had happened. It was as if a huge invisible hand was pushing them down and giving free run to their opponents. After awhile, they expected failure. They no longer assumed the ball might bounce their way once in awhile.
That was what made the Michigan result so special. Playing against a team they hadn't defeated at home since 1983, the Illini experienced a major reversal of furtune. Trailing in the second half, Terry Hawthorne caught Roy Roundtree from behind on the one yard line, and the defense put up an impressive goal line stand to prevent a score.
Suddenly, the clouds parted and the Illini felt a surge of extra energy at their backs. The offense went 99.5 yards to take the lead, and everything seemed to go their way from then on. The 38-13 result gave them two straight victories over the Wolverines. That was the first game all year Williams relaxed and let go of the pressures, and it showed. It gave him and his cohorts confidence they could move the ball.
Illinois then went to Minnesota and won, giving them an outside chance of winning their last five games to qualify for a bowl game. Williams was hurt after completing 5 of 5 passes to take an early lead, and redshirt freshman Jacob Charest came in and led the team to victory.
The result boosted morale while earning payback for the 2008 loss to Minnesota at home. Charest gave Illini fans hope for the future with his poise in the pocket and ability to find open receivers.
Charest got his first start against Northwestern, but Northwestern schemed well to stop what he had been doing well to that point. It is hard for an experienced quarterback to read complex defenses and counter successfully, but it is practically impossible for a rookie in his first start. Charest played admirably and had a chance to pull it out at the end, but it didn't happen in a 21-16 result.
These last three Big 10 games proved the Illini coaches hadn't lost their players as some surmised. They fought hard and got two wins and a close loss, showing definite improvement over the beginning of the year. They still had major weaknesses on defense, and there was reason to question coaching on both sides of the ball. But at least Illini fans had occasional reasons to cheer.
After another bye the week before Thanksgiving, they were forced to play nonconference games at Cincinnati on a Friday and at home versus Fresno State to end the season. Even then, they didn't give up. But Cincinnati is unbeaten and ranked in the top 5 in the country. And Fresno State will go bowling as well.
The Illini made the Cincinnati game respectable, but they gave up six touchdown passes in a 49-36 result. Porous pass defense never improved throughout the season, but the Illini offense was awakening against foes with fewer defensive stalwarts.
Big East officials appeared determined to see their pride and joy remain unbeaten. A clear Fayson touchdown catch wasn't even reviewed, just called incomplete. A Cincinnati score was accepted even after an official review despite video evidence the receiver never was inbounds with control of the ball.
Weird penalties were called that were not evident on instant replay. Illinois might never have been able to stop the Bearcat offense, but it may have outscored them with consistent officiating.
Even though the Illini were as fired up for a national TV game at Cincinnati as they had been for the Missouri and Ohio State games, they didn't let up against Fresno State. Perhaps they had learned valuable lessons through all the adversity. Regardless, they put up 52 points and gained 548 yards on the day.
Unfortunately, the end result was a microcosm of the entire season. The Illini defense couldn't contain a potent FSU offense and allowed a 67 yard touchdown drive with just 2:43 left to play. Going for two, the Illini first pressured the Bulldog quarterback and then tipped away his endzone pass. However, that tip landed in the arms of massive offensive guard Devan Cunningham, who fell into the end zone. The statistical probability of that play happening is astronomical.
Illinois had inconsistencies on offense, and the defense showed its inexperience all season long. There were questions about coaching decisions as well. But it is also true a number of bizarre things happened against them without balancing. The tipped extra point is one example. A punt that deflected off lineman Rakheem Smith into the arms of an opponent is another.
It is hard enough to win football games when things are going in your favor. It is quite another when it seems the ball is always bouncing the way of the opponents. The times the Illini had bad things go against them outnumbered the good by a large margin. After awhile, many players were literally sick over their misfortune. One cannot play a complete football game under these circumstances.
The schedule may have been the biggest reason for Illini failure in 2009. With a bye week prior to the Big 10 schedule, the Illini didn't have enough weak nonconference foes to gain momentum before facing Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State consecutively. They knew they wouldn't win all three, but one or two wins would have been sufficient to sustain momentum into the easier part of the schedule.
Everyone knew the Illini defense would be young and vulnerable all year. Watching them give up big plays was frustrating at best, but it was not unpredictable. All along, it was assumed the offense had to outscore opponents to win.
With a new coordinator, new offensive line coach, injuries to key personnel and philosophical concerns over play calling, the Illini didn't get their offense on track soon enough to win the early games needed to maintain confidence against top foes. Confidence is essential in football. The body performs best when it is loose and free to move as it must. Fear of failure tightens the muscles and prevents plays from being made.
It remains to be seen whether Schultz's style is appropriate for the Illini in a spread offense. Similar questions can be asked about defensive philosophy in lieu of an obvious lack of talent and depth at some positions. Special teams were average at best.
But it is hard to determine precisely how much the losses were the fault of the coaches, the players, or the intangibles that reared their ugly head all season long. All are likely part of the problem, but one must wonder how the season could have gone if the Illini stars had been healthy. And what would have happened if they could have gotten a couple early wins under their belts before hitting the meat of their schedule.
As for the future, there are definite concerns. A number of starters graduate, and Benn may opt for the NFL draft a year early. But the present freshman and sophomore classes are solid, so there is a good foundation for the future.
If an offensive coordinator more interested in balancing run with pass is hired as rumored to replace Schultz, the offense could still be effective next year. The defense returns most of its players, and they will have the benefit of experience to guide their play.
Certainly, there are question marks for next year. Stability is essential, and right now some answers are not yet visible. The Illini have a tough schedule next year also, but if they can somehow defeat Missouri and a couple of in-state nonconference foes, perhaps they can catch lightning in a bottle and surprise people.
That is, if they have a reversal of fortune so the ball will bounce their way once in awhile, and their best players can stay healthy the whole season. On the surface, the future is in doubt. But with all the intangibles at play, anything is possible.