Midseason report: Illinois Fighting Illini

October, 14, 2008
10/14/08
9:50
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

ILLINOIS (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten)

Despite the nation's biggest turnaround last season and loads of talent back on the roster, Ron Zook cautioned against claims that Illinois is back. It would take more top-notch recruiting, more player development and more consistent winning to complete the program's resurrection. Unfortunately for Zook, his misgivings have proven true. Illinois is off to a 3-3 start, rarely playing well on both sides of the ball and showing its explosive capabilities only in spurts. The schedule has been tough, with a neutral-site game against Missouri and a trip to Penn State, but aside from a three-quarter stretch at Michigan, the Illini haven't played to their potential. Quarterback Juice Williams has taken the next step in his evolution, but a defense that lost several cogs is struggling.

Offensive MVP -- Williams has embraced his role as the focal point of the offense, putting up huge numbers week after week. In his last two games, he set the total offense records at both Michigan Stadium (431 yards) and Memorial Stadium (503 yards), becoming the only active player to hold two such marks. He ranks fourth nationally in total offense (353.7 ypg), averages a whopping 15.7 yards per completion and remains a rushing threat with 445 yards.

Defensive MVP -- The unit has been a disappointment so far, but senior linebacker Brit Miller is a consistent producer. Shifting to middle linebacker after the loss of All-American J Leman, Miller leads the Big Ten in tackles per game (10.2) and ranks second nationally in tackles for loss (2.3 per game). He had a fumble return for a touchdown in a too-close-for-comfort win against Louisiana-Lafayette and earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after the Michigan victory (4 TFLs, 2 sacks).

What's next -- A BCS repeat is extremely unlikely, and bowl eligibility should be Illinois' top goal in the second half. The Illini haven't looked sharp at home and need a confidence-building performance this week against Indiana. A road win against free-falling Wisconsin would be big, and Illinois has given Ohio State trouble lately and could steal a win Nov. 15. Run defense is the team's top priority after ranking next to last in the Big Ten (152.5 ypg) despite a veteran line that Zook called the team's strength before the season.

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