It is difficult to put in perspective all that happened to the Illinois football team in 2009. Many things conspired to contribute to poor play: a rugged schedule, inconsistent coaching and a lack of leadership are among many factors that played a part.
A big reason Illini fans were so irate was the fact their expectations were high following an excellent fall camp. Illini players, coaches and fans all thought 2009 was the year to beat the Missouri Tigers in St. Louis. Illini confidence was sky high after preseason practices concluded.
And then on the second play of the game star receiver Arrelious Benn, around whom the offense had been designed, suffered a high ankle sprain that affected his play the whole season. On the third play, running back Jason Ford sprained his ankle. There was a noticeable drop in Illini emotion at that point.
Illinois head coach Ron Zook doesn't deal in excuses. The bottom line is the Illini lost and embarrassed themselves in the process. But he admits the injuries and subsequent lack of leadership played a role.
"The early injuries had a lot to do with it. Rejus (Benn) and then Jason, it was like somebody threw a blanket over us. Somebody kept waiting on somebody to take over.
"At halftime in the locker room, they were all looking at each other. Nobody was standing up. There was no leadership. Juice (Williams), who you counted on to lead, didn't do it. Martez (Wilson) didn't do it. Rejus was hurt. That's part of why it occurred."
The Illini defense, especially the secondary, was porous that day and throughout the season. Safety Donsay had proven to be an exceptional leader in the spring and was a big factor in defensive improvement as spring ball progressed. However, he was withheld from practice following neck surgery and inspired his teammates from the sideline.
When he returned last fall, he was naturally concerned about his neck. He no doubt feared paralysis with further injury. A known hitter, Hardeman had to learn to tackle by wrapping up instead of knocking people over.
In the Missouri game, when he missed a couple tackles that went for long gainers and then found himself out of position on some others, understandably he may have lost his ability to consider the needs of his teammates ahead of his own problems. This may be an example of what Zook describes as a lack of team leadership.
"You look at teams that lead from within. If it's a player-led team, you've got a much better chance of being successful than a coach-led team. To me, one of our biggest challenges as a coaching staff is to develop players to lead.
"Whether it be that reason or things happened...I don't know whether it was worry about his neck or having to learn how to tackle or whatever. It's a lot easier when you're not playing to be over on the sideline shaking a towel and all that stuff than when you're out there on the field playing.
"But the leadership has to come from within the players. Part of that is when you're playing young guys without a lot of experience. They're more concerned with just lining up and doing their jobs than being able to lead the other guys."
The Illini went on to lose their top 15 players through illness or injury for part or all of the season. To say the rest of the team doubted their abilities after that is an understatement. Add in a juggernaut early schedule, and the cumulative negative effect snowballed on the team emotionally and physically.
"Exactly, no question. But that's what it is. When you line up and you play Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State all right in a row, that's a meat grinder. That's a meat grinder for anybody. You can't complain about the schedule. That's the way it is. You've got to go and play it."
Some have wondered whether the Illini put too much focus on Missouri at the expense of the rest of the schedule. Zook discounts that notion.
"When you go to Camp Rantoul, you prepare for the season. You don't prepare for the Missouri game, you prepare for the season. That's the thing we tried to do, knowing in the first five games we'd have a pretty tough meat grinder."
There were problems in the 2008 season that might have been harbingers for 2009. Yet a few plays at specific times made a difference between a winning season and a losing one. Had the Illini gone to a bowl game in 2008, their confidence level might have helped them sustain their effort in 2009.
"You go back two years ago to the '08 season, three fumbles and we're 8-4. You turn the ball over. Those are little things that have a big effect.
"You always tell your players, one play can affect your season. But that's why it's a game, and that's why you play it. That's why everybody can't play it and why everybody can't coach it."
Zook talks more specifically about coaching problems in 2009 in part 6 of this 9-part report.