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2011 Illini Review: Rollercoaster ride

1/4/2012
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Illinois' 2011 football season never was boring. Wins, losses, coaches hired, coached fired and a bowl victory all made the season an unforgettable one. Here's a look back on the year that was for the Illini.

The 2011 season in a nutshell: No team in the country had more of a rollercoaster ride than Illinois. The year began with the Illini getting off to a 6-0 start, which included five home wins, and quickly becoming bowl eligible. With first-year athletic director Mike Thomas keeping a close eye on the program, it appeared as if Illinois coach Ron Zook was going to save his job. But just as Illinois had a dream-like start to the season, it endured a nightmare-like finish. The Illini lost six consecutive games and became the first FBS team to open the regular season with six straight wins and close with six losses in a row, according to STATS, LLC. The nosedive led to the firing of Zook on Nov. 27. Tim Beckman, who was Toledo's head coach, was named Zook's replacement on Dec. 9. Despite all the drama, Illinois closed the season out with a 20-14 win over UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 31. It was the first time in school history Illinois won bowl games in consecutive seasons.

Team MVP: Junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus. Mercilus showed signs last season as a sophomore that he had the potential to be a difference-maker, but no one could have expected the season he put together in 2011. Mercilus, a consensus first-team All-American, led the country with 16 sacks and tied Simeon Rice for Illinois' single-season record. He also broke the school record -- and Big Ten mark -- with nine forced fumbles and was ranked second in the country with 22.5 tackles for losses. He announced Tuesday he would be entering the NFL draft.

Offensive MVP: Senior wide receiver A.J. Jenkins. Jenkins was known best for being a good quote prior to the season, but he let his play do the talking for him this season. Jenkins turned himself into one of the premier receivers in the country, catching 90 passes for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns. He set a school record with 268 receiving yards to go along with 12 receptions and three touchdowns in Illinois' win over Northwestern.

Unsung hero: Senior kicker Derek Dimke was nearly perfect again this season. He connected on 10-of-12 field goals and 34-of-34 on extra points this season. His season-long field goal was from 49 yards.

Highest point of the season: Illinois advanced to No. 15 in the USA Today poll after improving to 6-0 on the season.

Lowest point of the season: Minnesota scored 20 points in the second quarter and went on to defeat Illinois 27-7 in the regular-season finale. It was the largest margin of defeat Illinois had suffered, and it was also the Illini's sixth consecutive loss.

Quote of the year: "You can never ever buy this feeling in a store." – Whitney Mercilus after winning the bowl game.

Looking ahead: A new era begins with Beckman officially taking over the team after the bowl game, but it's not as if Illinois is in need of a complete renovation. There are plenty of returning pieces for Beckman to utilize. Zook may not have always gotten it done on the field, but he often got it done in recruiting. One of the first difficult decisions Beckman will have to make in the spring is at quarterback. Sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase and freshman Reilly O'Toole are both strong candidates. Beckman used two quarterbacks at Toledo, and that could be in Illinois' future, too.