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.