A team that fails to be successful; a fanbase waiting and waiting to become a competitive team again; coaches being cleared out like they haven’t won a game in years; an athletic director and head coach being put under constant scrutiny; and a program starting to lose more faith week after week.
These are the characteristics that reveal what the Illinois football program has become after failing two years in a row following a Rose Bowl appearance in 2008.
During the 2007-2008 season, Ron Zook and the Illinois football program discovered that the talent they were bringing in could result in endless possibilities.
Juice Williams began to prove doubters wrong and show why he was such a highly touted recruit. He was a main reason Illinois came out of the season with a record of 9-4, which included a victory over top-ranked Ohio State in Columbus and its first appearance in the Rose Bowl since 1984.
Arrelious Benn, who was a freshman at the time, led the Illini in receiving with 676 yards on 54 receptions. He was also named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a Freshman All-American.
The defense was led by First Team All-Big Ten linebacker J Leman. He led the team in tackles with 10.3 per game and dominated with 12 tackles in Illinois’ upset of the Buckeyes.
These were just three of the many players that were a part of a team that made history for the Illinois.
Once that season was in the books, prime-time recruits started looking at Illinois, getting excited about the possibilities that it held for them.
What followed for the Illini was something that no one saw coming.
Just a year after a Rose Bowl appearance, Illinois failed to make any bowl appearance at all with a record of 5-7.
With three games left, they had a record of 5-4, but three losses in a row to Western Michigan, Ohio State, and Northwestern prevented Illinois from reaching a bowl game for the second consecutive year.
Still, Illinois was able to bring in a very strong recruiting class led by Nathan Scheelhaase and Terry Hawthorne.
But recruiting meant nothing if Zook was unable to coach once the team went onto the field.
Zook, who was fired from Florida in 2004, has been heavily criticized for his poor development of incoming talent and is currently being put in the “hot seat."
It was proven again in the 2008-2009 season that maybe the 2007 season was just a fluke.
Illinois yet again failed to make a bowl game and compiled a record of 3-9, which included a heartbreaking 53-52 loss to Fresno State in the season finale.
Juice Williams had one of the worst years of his career. He was sat multiple times and replaced by either Eddie McGee or Jacob Charest.
Along with the failure of Williams, Benn was injured in the season opener against Missouri, which resulted in a poor season for the predicted Heisman Trophy candidate.
The season cost Illinois some of their highest priority recruits last year: Kyle Prater (USC), Corey Cooper (Nebraska), and C.J. Fiedorowicz (Iowa).
Illinois then realized they had to make some changes within their coaching staff, and they made some big moves accordingly—but not what most fans were looking for.
Instead of firing Ron Zook, they fired offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, quarterbacks' coach Kurt Beathard, wide receivers' coach Jim Pry, and special teams' coach Mike Woodford. Co-defensive coordinators Dan Disch and Curt Mallory were allowed to stay as coaches for Illinois, but they were demoted to position coaches.
Illinois has now filled some of the vacancies with experienced, highly thought-of coaches. Paul Petrino has taken the offensive coordinator position; Vic Koenning has taken the defensive coordinator position; and Chip Long has taken the TE coaching position.
The biggest change will be with Coach Petrino. He brings a whole new style of offense to the Illini: pro-style.
Instead of being in the shotgun most of the time, the starting QB—who is presumed to be Nathan Scheelhaase—will be under center primarily.
Scheelhaase is a 6'2", 190-pound dual-threat quarterback. He beat out Jacob Charest and Chandler Whitmer for the starting job during spring practices earlier this year.
Koenning brings the type of mentality to the team that has not been seen for quite some time. The former Kansas State co-defensive coordinator loves on-field enthusiasm but will not accept it going over the line.
During spring practice, safety Trevon Bellamy had a big hit on his teammate and immediately began to celebrate. He was not ready in time for the next play, and Koenning quickly got on him and addressed the incident to the media as well.
“They’re not in the NFL. We don’t need to do all that stuff. One time, it was a two-minute drill. Well, you’re over there celebrating and they’re lined up, ready to go. That’s not real smart,” he said.
“College football is supposed to be wholesome and not have all that celebration stuff. We’re not going to do that. That shows no class. I know Coach Zook doesn’t want it, and I know the people of Illinois don’t want it, and I guarantee you that I don’t want it. We’re not going to do it.”
Now that Zook and athletic director Ron Guenther have a refurbished staff, a new QB, and an arrow pointed straight at their heads, it’s time for them to step up. With the new coaches changing up schemes, a bowl appearance will be difficult for Illinois unless the players can adapt quickly enough.
But if the Illini cannot make a bowl game next year, it seems very likely that Ron Zook will be fired.
Let’s take a look at their schedule and my predictions for each game:
@ Missouri (St. Louis): L
Southern Illinois: W
Northern Illinois: W
Ohio State: L
@ Penn State: L
@ Michigan State: L
@ Michigan: L
@ Northwestern: L
@ Fresno State: W
As I looked over the schedule, this is what I have come up with:
I can see them going anywhere from 2-10 to 8-4.
This season for Illinois may be one of the most interesting ones we have ever seen, because nobody knows what to expect.
But I can also see this season turning out in one of two ways:
- The Illini are able to adapt quickly to the offense and win the games they are supposed to, also pulling off an upset or two, which lands them a bowl appearance.
- The season becomes a nightmare. There will be no team chemistry, no leadership, and no urgency to win. Coach Ron Zook then gets fired.
Illinois has been on a roller coaster the past couple years.
It’s Zook and Guenther’s job to get it back on track before it derails.