Preview: Fighting Zookers

First up in our 2009 College Football Preview series will be Illinois.  Why?  Because I'm rolling straight alphabetical homie. 

Previously on Maize n Brew: Northwestern

Explanation and indemnifications found: here

The 2008 Illini were somewhat disappointing insofar as they were coming off a Rose Bowl bid and seemed to have the pieces in place to continue winning.  Losing Mendenhall hurt substantially, but WR Benn, QB Williams, and CB Davis were all back and poised to continue winning.  What actually happened?  They went 3-5 in conference, 5-7 overall and threw a "we're not playing in a bowl game" party with Michigan.  There was punch, and laughter, but only the sad bitter laugh of remorse over what was and what could have been.  Zook texted.  The night ended.

The offense was not the problem.  Averaging 438 yards per game, they ranked 2nd in the Big Ten.  Juice was the 2nd highest rated passer in the conference, and the team averaged over 28 points per game.  Michigan fans will remember Juice from such plays as 77-yard swing pass, and Big House record 431 all purpose yards.  Last year, I wrote this about Juice:

Juice Williams is a good quarterback until you make him throw. Then he's a bad quarterback. That could change.

Also:

Juice can't throw; it's that simple.

Well, he did lead the Big Ten in INT's with 16, but uh, yeah, I was kinda wrong.  The main reason the Illini were sitting at home over bowl season had to do with a horrific turnover margin (9th in the BXI, the part of me being kinda right), and a defense that was put in some tough positions. Illinois Total Defense rank was 6th in the BXI, while their scoring defense rank was 9th, just 2 points off of UM's.  A mediocre total + a bad scoring = bad field position probably resulting from the poor turnover margin.  The Illini scored metric shit-load of points, but the price to pay was Juice throwing INT's and the defense being put in mostly bad situations.  Last year, remarkably, I predicted the Illini to finish 7th in the BXI, mostly due to a lack of Mendenhall.  They finished 8th. 2009 predictions/preview after the jump.

2009 Schedule

9/05 vs. Missouri 3:40 PM
9/12 Illinois State 7:00 PM
9/26 @ Ohio State TBA
10/03 Penn State TBA
10/10 Michigan State TBA
10/17 @ Indiana 7:00 PM
10/24 @ Purdue TBA
10/31 Michigan 3:30 PM
11/07 @ Minnesota TBA
11/14 Northwestern TBA
11/27 @ Cincinnati TBA
12/05 Fresno State 12:30 PM

 

One thing the media will harp on that is off base:

Juice Williams does a lot of things, and does them fairly well.  However, it is not a good sign when your QB leads the team in rushing as he did last year.  I believe that Juice is a very good player; one who deserves a lot of respect from defenses.  However, when he is asked to do too much - as was often done to him last year - he makes mistakes.  Juice is a much better quarterback when he can actually set up, look for Benn, and scramble at the last possible second.  I compare it to Kobe Bryant in a backwards kind of way.  The less shots Kobe takes, the better the Lakers are.  The less running around that Juice does, the better the Illini will be.  Juice =/= Pat White.  The media wants him to be, but the less he resembles Pat White, the better.

One thing the media will completely ignore that is integral to this team's success:

Disclaimer:  I received this email from the always punctual Hail to the Orange, SBN's fine Illinois blog.  Fruit hail.  Delicious.  It reads:

"I think I should point out that the rivals depth chart you used is wrong, or at least misleading.
Russel Ellington and Ian Thomas are sophomores and did play a very small amount last year. Thomas is in his 3rd year because of a redshirt, so while our LBs are unproven and young, they aren't quite
that young and unproven."

Consider yourself noted.  Also consider the Rival's depth charts to be nixed from usage in this space. 

B2

Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'till it's gone.  You won't hear a ton about the departure of Vontae Davis because good shutdown corners are the silent assassins of the defense.  Quarterbacks avoid them, they don't make tackles, and they don't get INTs.  Instead, they shut down their half of the field.  Vontae Davis had 2 INTs all year last year, but his impact will be missed.  Now on the field at CB will be Junior Dere Hicks and...gulp...freshman Tavon Wilson, a 3 star out of the DC area.  The Illini are dangerously thin in the secondary, until you look at the linebacking corp.  Starting at all three positions are freshman, and while Martez Wilson did play last year, um, yikes.

Most important contributors on each side of the ball:

Offense - With much respect to Arrelious Benn, who is 100% uncut blue magic, this spot belongs to Juice.  When he's on - like he was in the Michigan game last yaer - he's awesome.  When he's having a bad day, he's a liability.  The Illini go as Juice goes.

Defense - With the thin linebacking and secondary corp, the defensive line is going to have to be killers.  Pilcher on the end and Williams in the middle are the two seniors.  They will have to be rocks if this defense is going to stop anybody.

Area that scares you as Michigan:

Simple:  Juice Williams doing what he did last year.

Area that makes you salivate as the Michigan Wolverines:

That defense looks primed to be worked over.  The inexperience at nearly every position will lead to opportunities for the read option/back field passing attack. 

Random factor that you think will come into play this season:

According to some talking head at ESPN, Illinois has the 8th toughest OOC schedule in the nation.  While they don't get points for a USC-esque scheduling, their opponents are indeed consistantly tough.  The last two games of the season for the Illini are Cincinnatti and Fresno State.  Mid-majors with something to prove?  No thanks.

Overall Record:

6-6.

Final Big Ten Standing:

7th

Bowl Destination:

Maybe the Motor City, if not they'd better start praying for some at-large's to open up.

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