- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The season report card series wraps up with the Illinois Fighting Illini. Time to pass out grades.
The unit was an utter failure in the final six games, not scoring a point in a half of each contest. The downward spiral began with a near shutout loss at home against an Ohio State team that completed just one pass, and Illinois never recovered following a 17-7 defeat. There was a time when Illinois moved the ball well, when quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins formed the Big Ten's most dangerous passing connection. Illinois scored 33 points or more in four of its first six games. But there were troubling signs, like an inconsistent run game, and once defenses figured out how to fluster Scheelhaase and contain Jenkins, the unit fell off of the map. Illinois' offensive line underperformed and the team didn't get enough from its running backs. It will be interesting to see where the unit goes under the new coaching staff.
The amazing thing about Illinois' collapse is the defense had very little to do with it. The unit struggled for a half against Purdue, Michigan and Wisconsin, but Illinois would have had chances to win if the offense had shown a pulse. Illinois' defense fueled a Sept. 17 win against Arizona State and finished the season ranked in the top 10 nationally in yards allowed, pass yards allowed, sacks and tackles for loss. Junior Whitney Mercilus earned All-America honors and the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end, and the defense also received strong performances from linebacker Jonathan Brown, Michael Buchanan and others. The run-stopping effort wasn't great, especially down the stretch, but Illinois shouldn't put the blame for its disappointing season on coordinator Vic Koenning and the defense.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D
Illinois had a rough year in the kicking game. The punt return team was painful to watch, and Illinois ranked last in the Big Ten in both punt returns and kick returns despite boasting some talented athletes. The coverage teams weren't great, either, and freshman punter Justin DuVernois endured some predictable growing pains. While kicker Derek Dimke had another nice year in limited work, his only missed field-goal attempt proved costly against Penn State, a game where Illinois' special-teams woes stuck out.
Illinois had a golden opportunity for a breakthrough season and seemed well on its way to taking advantage of the situation with a 6-0 start, its best since 1951. The Illini had a playmaking defense led by a superstar in Mercilus and an offense with the potential to rack up big chunks of yards. It's stunning how dramatically things fell apart. As Mercilus recently told me, "A lot of guys were like, 'Wow, can't believe this really happened.'" The collapse meant the end for coach Ron Zook, and Illinois will try to bounce back under new boss Tim Beckman following the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
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