June 26, 2009
A random, too-soon look at Illinois' prospects next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. There are four brand new starters among the front seven on defense, and none of the returnees, tackle Josh Brent, end Doug Pilcher and Martez Wilson, was a full-timer starter last year. That may not be as foreboding as it sounds, considering the outgoing stalwarts were ninth in the Big Ten last year against the run and still have track marks on their backs from being turned into doormats against Missouri (226 yards allowed on 6.1 per carry, two touchdowns), Penn State (241 on 5.5 per carry, two TDs) and Ohio State (3-5 on 5.9, three TDs). At least they fared better against the lesser hitters on the schedule, and Brent and Wilson are the strength of the run D up the middle.
The run numbers seem worse when you consider the negative sack yards accumulated by the best pass rush in the conference, which is an even bigger concern: Brit Miller, David Lindquist, Will Davis and Derek Walker combined for 37 sacks and 69 tackles for loss the last two years and played key roles on the '07 Rose Bowl defense. The new kids at those spots include a converted receiver and a converted tight end, and only one player -- Pilcher, a full-time starter in 2006-07 who only made five starts in last year's rotation -- who doesn't qualify as a total question mark.
What's the Same. Statistically, Juice Williams was every bit the electrifying quarterback last year he was recruited to be -- he was the only QB in the Big Ten over 3,000 yards passing, led the team with 719 yards rushing and accounted for 27 total touchdowns. He had monster games against Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa and probably deserves to be a candidate for Big Ten MVP as a senior.
But that can only happen if he cancels his frequent stints as the Least Valuable Player. Williams has gotten a lot of breaks for being "young," which made sense when he couldn't hit the side of a barn with a pass as a slightly overwhelmed true freshman. It wears a little thin after 33 consecutive starts, among them 10 games last year with at least one interception and five with at least two, in addition to his "critical fumble" series, which hit critical mass in the loss to Minnesota (see below).
Williams has come a long way since his inauspicious debut season and should have his best set of receivers as a senior, led by the best playmaker in the Big Ten, Arrelious Benn. Still, it's hard to see him turning a corner without some kind of support in the running game. As a complement to All-American Rashard Mendenhall in a heavily run-oriented scheme in 2007, Williams earned his "rising star" tag; with virtually no run support last year (the leading rusher behind Juice, Daniel Dufresne, didn't even score a touchdown), he too often wound up looking like the goat despite the numbers. They're not going to get another Mendenhall, but the only new help in the running game are true freshmen (four-star Bud Golden foremost among them, according to the gurus), amd if someone back there doesn't establish himself as a game-in, game-out threat, Williams has to be more consistent as the center of attention.
All that good for nothing. Juice was characteristic of probably the most baffling team in the country last year, because in most significant ways, the 2008 outfit that failed to even make a bowl game was at least as good and often better than the 2007 Rose Bowl team:
Relative to 2007, last year's team outgained opponents by more yards per play and per game, won by wider margins, lost by smaller margins and even managed to outgain opponents by about the same margin in losses as it did in wins in '07. (Although that number is somewhat skewed by the Minnesota game; again, see below). By all those standards, on a down-by-down basis, Illinois was a better team last year ... and won half as many games.
If you want one number on that chart that screams "significant regression" -- the only one -- it's the one on the bottom right:
The two wins in '07 with negative turnover rates? Over Ball State and the hopeless, 1-11 version of Minnesota. Last year's team put on a clinic in how to give away wins -- or at least chances to win -- over the last two months, losing to Minnesota, Western Michigan and Northwestern despite outgaining all three; the Illini outgained Minnesota alone by a staggering 238 yards but lost by fumbling away two touchdowns (one directly, one setting up the Gophers inside the Illinois 10-yard line) and failing on fourth down from the Minnesota one in the second half. Illinois averaged 418 yards in five losses after Oct. 11, and failed to score more than 20 points in any of them.
At the same time, the Illini had a fairly modest game on offense (329 total yards) in a win over Iowa, when the defense was able to get three turnovers back for the three the offense gave the Hawkeyes; it was the only game Iowa lost after Oct. 11. No team that finished in the top-20 nationally in total offense, and in the top-40 in every major offensive category, should even be threatened with missing a bowl game, even with a middle-of-the-pack defense; if this year's edition can manage to hold that pace while cutting down on the giveaways, it should be back to nipping on Penn State and Ohio State's heels in an otherwise wide-open conference.
Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. There are only so many ways to get a wide receiver involved in an offense devoid of any other notable playmakers, which for Arrelious Benn last year meant a steady diet of end-arounds, bubble screens and gangs of defenders tracking his every move, plus a little punt return duty. Most of those overtures this time around should go to Jarred Fayson, a former blue-chip signee at Florida who followed Ron Zook north after two years buried behind classmate Percy Harvin on the Gators' depth chart. Fayson compares well to Harvin -- about the same size, not far behind in recruiting hype out of high school and possibly faster on a straightaway, if you believe published times. Here, his role after a transfer year lighting up the scout team will be to provide some electricity in the return game and do enough on offense -- especially on the sideline-to-sideline stuff, which would seem to suit him much better than Benn -- to give Benn more chances to out-jump and out-muscle corners and safeties downfield.
Best-Case. The non-conference schedule is easily the toughest in the Big Ten, even if you count the opener with Missouri and the year-end dates with Cincinnati and Fresno State as wins (we're being optimistic in this section), the season still turns on the first three Big Ten games: At Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State, in a row. If the Illini can win two of those three -- and remember, they beat Ohio State and Penn State in 2007 -- the race is on to the Big Ten title. Iowa and Wisconsin both rotate off the schedule this year, leaving a lineup of Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Minnesota and Northwestern to derail a fast start. I'm not sure I trust this team to go on a legitimate run, considering the head-scratchers his teams have lost on a consistent basis going back to Florida, but if the Illini manage to start 4-1 and somehow don't finish 10-2, it will be a kind of underachievement.
Worst-Case. Let's say the Illini lose the opener against Mizzou: They get a cupcake date with Illinois State, a week off and then the OSU-PSU-MSU gauntlet, which could leave them sitting at 1-4 and completely off the radar by mid-October. Even if they go on to take three of the next five Big Ten games and remain composed enough to beat Cincy or (not and) Fresno with nothing at stake, a 5-7 repeat is very possible, too. That would make four losing seasons in five years under Zook, which he probably would not survive.
Non-Binding Forecast. Illinois hasn't been consistent enough in any respect to earn the benefit of the doubt re: predicting a 4-1 start, but a 3-2 record through those first five tough games probably still means a winning season, with no more than three losses waiting over the second half. Short of breaking through as a Big Ten contender, the late stretch against Minnesota, Michigan, Northwestern and Cincinnati will be a key month, too, the difference between a 6-6 disappointment bound for the Insight Bowl and an 8-4 or 9-3 team returning to New Year's Day. If Williams cuts down the turnovers, Juice and Benn should be close to the best quarterback-receiver combo in the country; this is their year before moving on, and if they're not playing in one of the Florida bowls in January, it will feel like another case of wasted potential.
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Previous Premature Assessments: Fresno State, Clemson, Kansas State, Colorado State, Virginia Tech, Hawaii, Kentucky, Texas A&M, East Carolina, Arizona, Iowa, Connecticut, Purdue, Tennessee, California, Auburn, Nebraska, Miami.