January 27, 2009
I was working on a much lengthier postmortem of Illinois' disappointing, bowl-less season, but found the going very difficult. Here's why:
Team A is the 2006 Illini, which slightly outplayed its opponents on a down-by-down basis in the process of finishing 2-10, 1-7 in the Big Ten, and maintaining its reputation as conference laughingstock.
Team B is the 2007 Illini, which slightly outplayed its opponents on a down-by-down basis in the process of finishing 9-3 in the regular season, 6-2 in the Big Ten and earning a stunning, triumphant bid to the Rose Bowl.
Team C is the 2008 Illini, which soundly outplayed its opponents on a down-by-down basis in the process of finishing 5-7, 3-5 in the Big Ten, and descending into the ether of mediocrity.
Now, in assessing What Went Wrong with Team C last year, I'm supposed to be very optimistic about Team B and find that key to its success, which its successor so obviously lacked. For example, minus running back Rashard Mendenhall, star of the '07 Rose Bowl run, quarterback Juice Williams attempted about 10 more passes per game last year; the team was 1-5 when Juice attempted at least 30 passes, and finished 1-4 as the offensive became increasingly pass-oriented down the stretch. Meanwhile, the top running back in '08, Daniel Dufresne, didn't even score a touchdown.
But the net result of a more pass-based offense last year was a very slight increase in both yards and scoring; on the whole, Illinois lost nothing in shifting the focus onto Williams, and both his efficiency rating and touchdown:interception ratio significantly improved. The defense gave up fewer yards per game than in '07, and that's including Missouri's opening night romp. As a matter of fact, Illinois improved to some degree in almost every major facet -- except one:
That's not much, but as far as I'm concerned, that's it when it comes to the bigger picture. For the third year in a row, Illinois was roughly a 7-5 team whose fate was turned almost entirely by the breaks, up to and including whether or not the officials marked Juice down short of the goalline. For Ron Zook, such is the margin between a year as the toast of the league and a year on the proverbial hot seat. At least the trends would seem likely to even out in his favor the next time around.