Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Midseason report: Illinois
By Brian Bennett
Illinois Fighting Illini
Record: 6-0 (2-0 Big Ten)
Some teams benefit from an advantageous schedule. Still, it's up to the team to make the most of that advantage. Illinois has definitely done that. Thanks in large part to an ultra-friendly slate that kept them at home for the first five weeks before a road game at struggling Indiana, the Illini are off to their best start since the 1951 team began 7-0. But let's give Ron Zook's team some credit beyond the schedule as well. Like it was at the end of last year, the Illinois offense is a balanced, well-oiled machine, averaging almost the same amount of rushing yards (226) as passing yards (221). Sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has improved as a passer and remains a strong running threat, while senior A.J. Jenkins has blossomed into the most dangerous receiver in the Big Ten. They're augmented by a deep backfield (Jason Ford, Donovonn Young and Troy Pollard) that has made up for the loss of Mikel Leshoure. Maybe more impressively, the defense absorbed the loss of NFL draft picks Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson without much problem. Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan have harassed opposing quarterbacks from their defensive end spots, and linebacker Jonathan Brown -- when he isn't kneeing players in the groin -- comes flying at ball carriers in all directions. Illinois has also showed a fighting spirit, winning three straight games by exactly three points. Of course, it helped that those all came at home. But the Illini have maximized that assistance so far this season.
Offensive MVP: Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins. It's hard to go against Scheelhaase, who is putting together a terrific season and who has accounted for 14 touchdowns throwing and running this year. But Jenkins has been superb as Scheelhaase's favorite target. He ranks fifth nationally in receiving yards and leads the Big Ten with 46 catches for 815 yards and seven touchdowns.
Defensive MVP: Defensive end Whitney Mercilus. The junior has looked unblockable at times while leading the Big Ten in sacks (8.5), tackles for loss (10.5) and forced fumbles (four). Not bad for a guy who had started only two career games before this season.