Better Know An Iowa Football (Non-) Opponent 2010: Illinois Fightin' Illini (Part One)

The off-season is a long and tiresome trudge, so how can we best get through it?  By looking ahead to next year, of course.  So, in the spirit of forward thinking, we present a team-by-team look at Iowa's 2010 football opponents (with looks at Illinois and Purdue thrown in for good measure so our Big Televen brethren don't feel ignored).  Next up: the bye week Illinois Fightin' Illini.  The Zooker rides again!

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Zook-Fu: powering Illinois football since 2005.

ILLINOIS FIGHTIN' ILLINI (@ our mind's eye; whenever we damn well like)

Where the devil do they play?  At creatively-named Memorial Field, where thousands of their most devoted fans patiently count down the days until basketball season tips off.

What did they do last year?  Failed, failed, and then failed in mindblowing technicolor fashion to cap off their Season of Fail.  When life hands good coaches lemons, they make lemonade.  When life hands mediocre coaches lemons, they at least manage to enjoy some fruit.  When life hands Ron Zook lemons, he somehow winds up with lemon juice in his eyes and rancid lemon peels littering the floor.  One other team managed to go from a Rose Bowl appearance to a 3-win season in the last decade (Michigan), and at least they had the excuse of swapping coaches and changing the entire culture of the program.  Zook simply fiddled while his program burned.

Their season was pretty much dead on arrival after Missouri, who seemed vulnerable after losing virtually all of their top offensive skill players (Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman), utterly destroyed Illinois in the season opener, 37-9. That was a bad omen.  There was a dead cat bounce against Illinois State the following week (a 45-17 win), but the nosedive continued after that with a 30-0 woodshed beating at the hands of Ohio State in Columbus (which had been the site of Zook's greatest triumph at Illinois in 2007).  Four more losses followed, including humbling road losses to both Indiana schools.  There was a brief resurgence in October with a pair of wins over Michigan and Minnesota, but normal service was restored after that, with a three-game losing streak to end the season, including a humbling 53-52 home loss to Fresno State that featured one of the greatest scoring plays in recent memory.  Fat men scoring touchdowns (or two-point conversions, as the case may be) never gets old.  And yet the Zooker remains gainfully employed by Illinois, thanks to scandals elsewhere in the university, a lack of funds to buy him out, and the fervent prayers of the denizens of Blogfrica.  

So do they have, like, history with Iowa?  Indeed they do; Iowa and Illinois have been bound by the Big Ten (not to mention a border) for decades and a solid amount of animosity has built up in that time.  Certain pockets of Iowa fans (mainly those from eastern Iowa or transplants from Chicago) even consider Illinois one of Iowa's biggest rivals.  Overall, Illinois leads the head-to-head series, 38-29-2, but the Aughts were Iowa-dominated, with Illinois wins in 2000 and 2008 bookending five consecutive Iowa wins in the middle of the decade.  There were a handful of highlights in those games, like Jason Reda missing three field goals (two blocked by Kenny Iwebema) in the first half in 2005 or the Iowa defense completely flustering the potent Illinois offense in 2007, but perhaps the finest memory from the Iowa-Illinois series over the past few decades was Nick Bell steamrolling a previously stout Illinois defense in 1990 and setting up Hayden's third Rose Bowl trip.  Nick Bell might still be picking bits of Illinois linebackers out of his cleats.

What's the one thing you should know about Illinois?  It's not that the likes of Red Grange, Dick Butkus, George Halas, Jesse Jackson, Roger Ebert, Jack Welch, Jerry Colangelo, Ang Lee, and even motherfucking Ron Popeil once matriculated at Chambana; no, it's the fact that the one and only J. Leman, American hero, went there.  

How many of these fools were around a year ago?  Per the Illinois spring prospectus, they return five starters on offense (including three along the offensive line), seven starters on defense (including three starters at linebacker and a pair of returning starters at cornerback).  They also return all of their kicking specialists.

One of Juice's most infamous moments; we'll miss that big-domed lug.

What should we expect when Illinois has the ball?  At long last, the schizophrenic tenure of Juice Williams is sadly (or blissfully, depending on your rooting interest) over and he's off to NFL training camp the UFL the CFL Margaritaville. Juice came to Illinois as one of Zook's early signature recruits; he was one of the top QB recruits in 2006 and he was going to be the face of the program and the man to lead the Zookian revival at Illinois.  Williams was supposed to be one of the near-prototypical quarterbacks for the modern era; he was a few inches shorter than ideal (a listed 6'2"), but had a cannon arm and good speed on the ground.  Alas, that cannon arm was connected to a woefully imprecise targeting mechanism and all that physical ability was tied to a brain with pitiful football instincts.  And under the expert tutelage of the Zooker (admittedly, a defensive coach at heart) and a revolving door of offensive coordinators, Juice's physical talent manifested itself only fitfully.  He finished with barely better than a 1:1 TD:INT ratio (56:44) and never completed better than 57% of his passes.  And the stats don't even tell the full story: what other four-year starter at QB was benched as often as Juice?  But hey: the past is the past.  Who's next?

Well, it's (probably) not Juice's sometimes replacement of the past few years, Eddie McGee.  McGee was seldom any more impressive at QB than Juice (and was so bad in his lone start, a 2/11-31-1 INT outing against Michigan State, that he was yanked by halftime) and he's been dutifully shuffled off to WR this year... except he might also be floating back at QB, too.  Because nothing screams success like letting a player be mediocre at two positions instead of just one.  It's also not Jacob Charest, a redshirt freshman who saw action a year ago when both Williams and McGee were too awful or too injured to merit additional playing time.  He transferred out when he lost the starting quarterback derby in spring practice.  No, the starter is (likely) going to be redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase, an Iowa legacy recruit who spurned the Hawkeyes to ply his trade with the Fightin' Zookers.  Scheelhaase hasn't taken so much as a snap yet in a college game, but he evidently impressed during spring practice.  Like Juice, he's a dual threat QB; Illinois fans hope that's the only thing he has in common with Juice.

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Runnin' down a 3-9 season.

The strength of the Illinois offense in 2010 figures to be their running game; they return three starters from an offensive line that powered the second-best rushing offense in the Big Ten in 2009 and they return their top two running backs, Mikel LeShoure (who would be much cooler if he spelled his name Mik-El or even Mike-El) and Jason Ford.  LeShoure ran for 734 yards and five touchdowns on 108 carries, while Ford went for 588 yards and four touchdowns on 97 carries.  LeShoure was hampered by injuries early in the '09 campaign, but if he can manage to stay healthy, he could be the powerful, explosive runner the Illini offense so badly needs.  Averaging almost 7.0 yards a carry on 100 carries is nothing to sniff at.  Ford is a solid back-up and a good option to spell LeShoure; behind them are two slightly smaller backs, Justin Green (who ran for 88 yards and a pair of touchdowns in '09, although most of that came against Illinois State) and Troy Pollard (11-67-0).

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Arrelious Benn on his way to an all-too-rare destination: the end zone.

This time a year ago, hype and hope overfloweth for Illinois' receiving corps; led by surefire NFL prospect (and noted Iowa hater) Rejus Benn and a highly-touted transfer from Florida (Jarred Fayson), the Illini passing attack was going to dominate the Big Ten skies.  So how'd that turn out?  Not well: their passing attack averaged just 193 ypg (7 ypg less than their running game, actually), good for 10th in the Big Ten.  No receiver managed to top 500 yards (not even the NFL-bound Benn) and only two managed to get more than 220 receiving yards on the season... and both of those guys (Benn and Chris Duvalt) are gone.  Illinois spread the ball around extensively in 2009 -- ten players caught at least ten passes -- but only Benn appeared to be slightly reliable.  They also lacked receivers that could stretch the field; of those ten pass-catchers with more than ten receptions, only two had better than 15 ypc (Duvalt and Jeff Cumberland, both of whom are gone now).  At present, Fayson (16-218-1) and A.J. Jenkins (10-123-1) are the projected starters, with Fred Sykes (10-75-2), Steve Hull, and Chris James (4-61-0) the primary back-ups.  

Yet the biggest change in the Illinois offense probably won't be the identity of the quarterback or the emergence of new faces at WR, but in the men calling the plays and grooming said quarterback.  Zook may have been able to save his own skin following last year's disastrous campaign, but the same could not be said of his assistants; heads had to roll and those were the heads that were sacrificed to the masses.  In their stead come a pair of faces straight out of the Frank Stallone All-Stars playbook: offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and QB coach Jeff Brohm (at one point they were going to be joined by TE coach Greg Nord, but he recently jumped ship to Kentucky before even coaching a game at Illinois -- now there's a man who knows how to stay one step ahead of the posse), two men overshadowed by their more famous brothers.  Mind you, given time Petrino and Brohm could turn around Illinois' offensive fortunes -- they were part of potent offenses at Arkansas and Louisville and unless that success was entirely the doing of their more touted siblings (unlikely), they're not utterly hopeless.  On the other hand, "given time" is the key caveat there -- with Zook basically facing a one-year deadline (surely they wouldn't keep him around after yet another miserable season?), the pressure will be on them to produce immediately, inexperienced QB and WRs be damned.  

NEXT: The Illini defense and what Illinois can expect in 2010 (further incompetence, most likely).

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