Illinois Preview 2006
Illinois RB Pierre Thomas
Posted Aug 6, 2006

Can Ron Zook actually coach? It might seem like a basic question, even a bit harsh and unfair, but Illinois fans have to wonder whether Zook is the type of coach who can lead a program to success or if he's just a stopgap coach who'll bring energy and passion, but can't get the job done managing a game or picking up wins.

Offense | Defense | Depth Chart | Further Analysis 

After all, he was never a head coach before becoming a curious hire to replace Steve Spurrier at Florida where he had mediocre success with some of college football's most talented teams.

To be fair, he had little to no Big Ten talent to work with in last season's disaster and deserves a few years to see if his recruiting classes can make a difference. However, he and his staff tried to make the square pegs fit the round holes and did little to come up with the proper adjustments as the season went on.

Head coach: Ron Zook 
2nd year: 2-9
5th year overall: 25-23
Returning Lettermen:
Off. 21, Def. 24, ST 2
Lettermen Lost: 15
Ten Best Illinois Players
1. RB Pierre Thomas, Sr.
2. OT Akim Millington, Jr.
3. DT Chris Norwell, Jr.
4. RB E.B. Halsey, Sr.
5. OG Matt Maddox, Sr.
6. CB Alan Ball, Sr.
7. LB Brit Miller, Soph.
8. FS Justin Harrison, Jr.
9. SS Kevin Mitchell, Jr.
10. S Justin Sanders, Jr.

2006 Schedule
CFN Prediction:

9/2 Eastern Illinois
9/9 at Rutgers
9/16 Syracuse
9/23 Iowa
9/30 at Michigan St
10/7 Indiana
10/14 Central Michigan
10/21 at Penn State
10/28 at Wisconsin
11/4 Ohio State
11/11 Purdue
11/18 at Northwestern

2005 Schedule
CFN Prediction:
2005 Record: 2-9

Preview 2005 predicted wins

9/3 Rutgers  W 33-30 OT
9/10 San Jose State W 40-19
9/17 at California L 35-20
9/24 Michigan State L 61-14
10/1 at Iowa L 35-7
10/8 at Indiana L 36-14
10/22 Penn State L 63-10
10/29 Wisconsin L 41-24  
11/5 at Ohio State L 40-2
11/12 at Purdue L 37-3
11/19 Northwestern L 38-21

The biggest issue is on each line, and for that Ron Turner and the previous regime is to blame. The Big Ten is more of a finesse conference than you might believe from its reputation, but you can't be successful in the league if you can't stop the run or push someone around in the ground game (unless you're Northwestern, which somehow succeeded with no run defense whatsoever). Illinois had major problems on the offensive line giving the quarterbacks no time to operate and opening few holes for tremendous backs E.B. Halsey and Pierre Thomas. The defensive line generated no consistent pass rush and got steamrolled over on the way to becoming the nation's worst run defense. Unfortunately, there won't be a huge upgrade on the lines this year despite the addition of Oklahoma's Akim Millington at tackle to go along with five other starters.   

Despite the concerns with the coaching staff and the lines, there's still reason to be optimistic for a surprise season thanks to all the returning experience with 49 letterwinners and 21 starters returning. The skill players on offense aren't that bad, and there are several very athletic, very promising players on defense that should grow into steady playmakers.

The schedule isn't all that bad with enough average games to reasonably shoot for six wins, which would obviously be hailed as a huge campaign considering the program has won four D-I games in the last two seasons. And when it comes to Zook, think what you will about him, but he's a master motivator and he kept his team trying hard in the midst of a nightmare of a year. Keeping the team's motor running won't be a problem. 

If nothing else, the Illinois season will be entertaining because of Zook. Will teams crank out 469 yards of offense and close to 40 points per game again? Will the offense start to produce? Will Zook meltdown like he did at Florida if there's criticism for another bad year, or will he be the Big Ten coach of the year leading the team to a bowl game? It'll be worth watching. 

The Schedule: It's not all that bad, but the Illini have to take advantage of every opportunity at home and must come up with a Big Ten shocker or two on the road. A win over Syracuse is a must to provide some momentum going into the Big Ten opener against Iowa, and there's no recovering if there's another loss to Indiana like the 36-14 debacle of last year. Central Michigan provides a welcome mid-season respite before playing at Penn State, at Wisconsin and at home against Ohio State. In other words, Illinois had better have a big first half of the season.

Best Offensive Player: Senior RB Pierre Thomas. Fellow backfield mate E.B. Halsey and newcomer tackle Akim Millington could also be considered the team's best offensive player, but Thomas is the one who keeps the offense alive with his power running and enough speed to become a decent kickoff returner.

Best Defensive Player: Junior DT Chris Norwell. A good interior pass rusher and one of the few decent playmakers against the run, the 290-pound junior should grow into a stronger anchor the rest of the line can work around.

Key player to a successful season: The entire offensive line. Tackles Akim Millington, J.J. Simmons, Charles Myles, guards Martin O'Donnell and Matt Maddox and center Ryan McDonald have improve the pass protection and start to open more holes for the good backs to run through. The ground game ran for 158 yards per game, but it should be doing more.

The season will be a success if ... Illinois wins five games. Getting to six and a bowl game might be a little too much to ask out of a team that still needs a few years to emerge, but winning five games would set the tone for a potentially big 2007 when all the fast young players will finally mature.

Key game: Sept. 23 vs. Iowa. Illinois has to start making Memorial Stadium a dangerous place to play. A win in the Big Ten opener would do wonders for the program's confidence going into a road trip to Michigan State, but just playing well and hanging around a potential top ten team like the Hawkeyes should grow into would show how the team might be going in the right direction.

2005 Fun Stats: 
- Fourth quarter scoring: Opponents 112 - Illinois 47
- Punt return average: Opponents 15.3 yards per return - Illinois 4.6 yards per return
- Third down conversion percentage: Opponents 76 of 150 (51%) - Illinois 65 of 173 (38%)

The Last Time Illinois…
…played in a bowl game…2001 (Sugar Bowl vs. LSU)
…missed a bowl game…2005
…pitched a shutout…2000 (Iowa)
…was shutout…2004 (Minnesota)      
…scored 50 points…2004 (Florida A&M)
…went undefeated…1951
…won a conference title…2001 (Big Ten)
…had a 3,000-yard passer…2001 (Kurt Kittner)
…had a 1,000-yard rusher…2002 (Antoineo Harris)
…had a 1,000-yard receiver…2002 (Brandon Lloyd)
…had a first-round draft choice…1996 (LB Kevin Hardy)

Related Stories
Illinois Preview 2006 - Offense
 -by  Aug 6, 2006
Illinois Preview 2006 - Further Analysis
 -by  Aug 6, 2006
Illinois Preview 2006 - Depth Chart
 -by  Aug 6, 2006

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