ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
Record: 6-6 (2-6 Big Ten)
Even the most cynical observers and Ron Zook disbelievers couldn't fathom Illinois being in its current predicament back on Oct. 14. The team was off to a 6-0 start, its best since 1951. Illinois boasted one of the nation's top passing combinations in quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and receiver A.J. Jenkins, and defensive end Whitney Mercilus was living up to his surname. The consistency that had eluded Illinois for the better part of the past two decades finally seemed to be in place.
And then it all disappeared. Illinois dropped its final six games, becoming the first FBS team to start 6-0 and finish the regular season at 6-6. A once-potent offense flat-lined, failing to score in a half of each of the final six contests. It spelled the end for Zook, the team's seventh-year coach, who was fired Nov. 27, a day after his team's uninspiring performance against 3-8 Minnesota.
Things began to go downhill during an Oct. 15 home game against struggling Ohio State, which won 17-7 despite completing just one pass and attempting four. Illinois' offensive backslide came as a surprise to just about everyone. Scheelhaase struggled and lost snaps to backup Reilly O'Toole, while the offensive line took significant steps back and opposing defenses began taking Jenkins out of the equation.
Illinois' defense continued to play well, particularly in an agonizing loss at Penn State, and Mercilus and others put up impressive numbers. Yet it wasn't enough to save Zook or a once-promising season.
Offensive MVP: Jenkins. The senior had a blistering start, racking up 815 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 46 receptions through the first six games. Jenkins' yards production declined after defenses realized he was Illinois' only consistent offensive weapon, but he still had six or more receptions in four of the final six regular-season contests. Jenkins was the Big Ten's only semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award.
Defensive MVP: Mercilus. Like Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan in 2010 and Michigan's Brandon Graham in 2008, Mercilus' individual production was somewhat overshadowed by his team's subpar record. The junior had one of the more dominant seasons of any defender in college football, leading the nation in both sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (9), the latter mark setting a new Big Ten record. Mercilus led the Big Ten and tied for fifth nationally in tackles for loss (19.5). Linebacker Jonathan Brown (102 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, six sacks) also merits a mention.
Turning point: The Ohio State game. Illinois came in at 6-0 and was expected to handle the slumping Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium. Instead, Ohio State held Illinois scoreless for more than 53 minutes and prevailed 17-7 despite completing just one pass. It began a troubling trend for Illinois, which failed to score in a half of each of its final six games, all losses.
What's next: First-year athletic director Mike Thomas is looking for a head coach, which he hopes to name soon. The Illini will head to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco later this month to face UCLA, which also fired its head coach (Rick Neuheisel). Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has been tabbed to serve as head coach in the bowl, although offensive coordinator Paul Petrino already has left the team and other assistants could follow. The new coach probably can't arrive soon enough.