2011 Illinois Fighting Illini Football: 6 Reasons They Will Go Bowling Again
Coach Ron Zook and his Fighting Illini football team are coming off of a successful 7-6 campaign and are hoping to become bowl eligible in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1991-92.
They finished last season with a 38-14 throttling of Baylor in the Texas Bowl and are hoping to carry that momentum into this season, despite the loss of some of their key contributors.
Gone from last year’s team are three first-round draft picks. The Illini lost leading rusher Mikel Leshoure, leading tackler Martez Wilson and one of the top defensive tackles in the country, Corey Liuget.
However, they do return 13 starters from last year’s team, including 2010 Big Ten All-Freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, running back Jason Ford and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins on offense. With an experienced offensive line returning, the Illini offense should be able to score some points.
The defense took a bigger hit with the losses of Wilson and Liuget, but they too have several returning starters and are hoping to build on the success they had last year. Under first-year defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, the Illini defense improved 53 spots in total defense and 48 spots in scoring defense from the prior season.
In order to sustain that success, the Illini will look to linebackers Ian Thomas and Trulon Henry as well as defensive backs Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne.
One thing the Illini do not lack going into this season is confidence. After last season’s success, it seems they have come into this year with a little more swagger than they have had in the past.
For the first time in almost 20 years, the Orange and Blue faithful will get to see their football team play in back-to-back bowl games and here are the main reasons why that will happen.
It all starts with the quarterback and the Illini have a good one in sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase.
As a redshirt freshman, Scheelhaaase started all 13 games and finished seventh in the Big Ten in total offense and 10th in rushing yards per game. He also rushed for an Illinois freshman record and Illinois quarterback record of 868 yards and threw 17 touchdowns with only eight interceptions.
In addition to being a versatile athlete, Scheelhaase is intelligent as well. He earned academic all-conference in 2010 and, during his redshirt season of 2009, he earned a faculty award for leadership in the community, classroom and on the field.
Scheelhaase is the total package and by the time he’s done in Champaign, he may turn out to be one of the best QBs to have played for the Orange and Blue.
He's only a sophomore and if he continues to improve, the sky’s the limit.
The Illini have always had a solid running game and, in recent years, they have produced some top-notch backs in guys like Mikel Leshoure, Rashard Mendenhall and Pierre Thomas.
This year, it is Jason Ford’s turn to carry the torch.
At six-feet and 235 pounds, Ford is a beast and is tough to bring down. Last season, playing behind Mikel Leshoure, Ford still managed to gain 480 yards on 99 carries and, during his sophomore season, he gained 588 yards on 97 carries, so he has plenty of experience.
The only real question with Ford is if he stays healthy. He had a knee injury during the offseason that forced him to miss the spring game, but was healthy to start the season.
If Ford does miss any time or struggles for whatever reason, the Illini have plenty of options behind him with senior Troy Pollard and two exciting freshman backs in Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson.
The Offensive Line
A big reason the Illini have always had a solid running game is because of their offensive line and this year is no different.
The offensive line is definitely a strength of the team and will be anchored by senior left tackle Jeff Allen.
Allen was a 2010 second team All-Big 10 selection, a team captain and was named the team’s most outstanding offensive lineman. He helped lead the way for the top rushing offense in the Big 10 and the 11th-best rushing offense in the nation.
Along with Allen, the Illini return three other starters on the offensive line in center Graham Pocic and guards Hugh Thornton and Jack Cornell. The remaining spot belongs to redshirt freshman right tackle Michael Heitz.
If the line can open some holes for the backs and give Nathan Scheelhaase some time to operate, it could be a long year for opposing defenses.
In addition to generating some great running backs in recent years, the Illini have also churned out some pretty impressive wide receivers in guys like Arrelious Benn and Brandon Lloyd.
This year, A.J. Jenkins has a chance to add himself to that list.
Jenkins started all 13 games last year and led the team with 56 receptions for 746 yards and seven touchdowns. He has good speed and big-play ability and the Illini coaching staff is hoping it sees a lot of big plays from him this year.
With the emergence of sophomores Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford, things should open up a bit more for Jenkins this year as well, which will make him even more dangerous.
Having a versatile QB in Scheelhaase, combined with a solid running game and big-play ability on the outside with Jenkins, gives the Illini a potent offense.
There is no doubt that the Illini will be able to score this season, but will they be able to keep their opponents out of the end zone?
The losses of Liuget and Wilson are well documented, but the Illini still return six starters from last year’s solid defense including a lot of experience in the defensive backfield. And a lot of speed.
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning actually went as far as saying that he believes this year's defense will be even better than last year's—despite the losses. He feels confident that the guys he has returning will be better having already had one year in his system.
In Terry Hawthorne and Tavon Wilson, the Illini may have one of the best cornerback tandems in the conference, while Justin Green and Supo Sanni also add to the athleticism of the defensive backfield.
At linebacker, they have the experienced Ian Thomas and have moved Trulon Henry from safety to linebacker which, again, gives them more speed and athleticism at that position as well.
The defensive line is not deep at this point, but does have some good athletes in end Michael Buchanan and tackle Akeem Spence who can get to the quarterback.
The offense may be the strength of this team, but the defense might surprise some people and will be the key to how many games the Illini win this season.
To say that Illinois has a favorable schedule would be a bit of an understatement. There’s no doubt that the schedule sets up in the Illini’s favor this year, but now it is up to them to take advantage of it.
They play a record eight home games this season, including their first five games of the season. It doesn’t even seem possible, but with the new alignment this year, that’s the way it shakes out.
After easily disposing of Arkansas State and South Dakota State, the Illini will now have two more non-conference games before opening up Big 10 play against in-state rival Northwestern on October 1st. The only real test of the non-conference schedule will come next week against a tough Arizona State team.
The Illini also catch a break within conference where they have Indiana, Purdue, Penn State and Minnesota on the road while playing Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin at Memorial Stadium.
This gives them a shot to win some road games and possibly have a big upset or two at home.
After yesterday’s victory over South Dakota State, the Illini need only four wins in their remaining ten games to reach the postseason.
With their group of young, talented players and the schedule setting up the way it does, the only question now is which bowl will the Zooker and his Illini be heading to this year.