The Big Ten Dark Horse: Illinois Fighting Illini
Ron Zook’s squad turned heads in 2007 by representing the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl; even though Pete Carroll’s Trojans put the 9-3 Illini in a body bag early. 2008 was a step back to reality as the crew from Champaign was too inconsistent to build on the previous seasons successes. Entering 2009 the Illini have a legitimate shot at grabbing their 16th Big Ten Title, the first since 2001.
3 Biggest Reasons They Can:
-Kicker Matt Eller’s second half surge. As a freshman Eller missed five total field goals; however four of those five misses were in the first six games of the season; he went 7-8 in the final six contests. The sophomore enters 2009 making 80% of field goals of forty yards or more as well as 100% of field goals under thirty yards. With a year of experience under his belt expect the sophomore to be among the Big Ten’s best field goal kickers.
-More front seven talent. Although technically only two starters return in the front seven from a season ago this defensive front should be much improved from last season’s unit. The moving of Martez Wilson to middle linebacker should greatly improve the play making ability of the linebacking core as he, Ian Thomas and Russell Ellington are all speedy, aggressive, tackling talents. Up front the defensive line has experience across the board anchored by the return of defensive tackles Josh Brent and Corey Liuget. Brent is a monster capable of swallowing up double teams while Liuget is an athletic DT with quick feet and great body control.
This unit should turn around the troubling trend of a season ago that saw the Illini yield over 150 yards on the ground per game and 4.0 yards a carry. Zook’s getting talent into the depth chart and this unit should personify the continuous revamping of the skill level in Champaign.
-The Illini skill position players are the best in the Big Ten. Juice Williams, the best quarterback in the conference returns to throw the football to Arrelious Benn, the best receiver in the conference and one of the best in the nation. Zook’s squad returns all the rushing and receiving yards from 2008 aside from Will Judson’s 401 receiving yards. The Juice-man has evolved from the run first threat of 2007 to a 3,173 yard passer capable of hitting receivers all over the field in Zook’s hybrid spread offense. With the best receiving core in the league look for Juice to build on last season’s outstanding numbers.
On the ground the running back by committee philosophy will again be employed since none of the backs live up to the performance of Rashard Mendenhall in 2007. Jason Ford, Daniel Dufrene and Mikel Leshoure are a three headed monster, each with their own style and strengths. The trio will be running behind a big, experienced offensive line so watch for the small, quick Dufrene to get loose late in games after the bigger, bruising Ford and Leshoure soften up defenses.
Biggest Roadblock To Their Dark Horse Dreams:
Its really quite simple; in a seven day period the Illini will line up in Columbus to face the Buckeyes then turn around and on the seventh day square off against the Nittany Lions. The Big Ten’s two favorites kick off Illinois’ conference season in a big way. Going to the Horseshoe; a place where the Illini shocked the world by beating the Buckeyes’ on the legs and arm of Juice Williams, will not be an easy task especially with the Scarlet and Grey wanting revenge for spoiling their 2007 undefeated season. Expect the Buckeyes to pressure Juice from all areas and for the sophomore Terrelle Pryor to have a big day in their home Big Ten opener.
After a tough, physical game in Columbus the Illini will play host to the Nittany Lions in what will be a must win game pending their defeat by the Buckeyes. Evan Royster’s legs, Daryll Clark’s arm and the aggressive Penn State defense will make for a tough back to back for Ron Zook’s team, putting intense pressure on Illinois in just the 5th week of the season.
If Zook and the Fighting Illini can split the games in Columbus and versus Penn State they’ll be in prime position to win their share of the Big Ten. A stumble against both would quickly end their hopes to claim the title. Zook has long been lauded as an outstanding recruiter, this year, with a team capable of winning the Big Ten Title he’s got to prove that his X’s and O’s match his ability to find the Jimmies and Joes.