Anatomy of a season gone wrong

Anatomy of a season gone wrong

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Ron Zook's 2008 Illini were expected to follow up a Rose Bowl season with a run toward a Big Ten title. Instead, Illinois never met expectations, losing four of its last five games to finish out of the bowl picture. What went wrong? Plenty, distractions popping up at every stop along the way. Here are 25 of them:

May 2

Losing Rashard Mendenhall a year early to the NFL was bad enough. Having the tailback bad-mouth his college program was worse. During his introductory news conference with the Steelers, the Big Ten MVP talked about his unhappiness at Illinois, part of it stemming from his brother Walter's transfer to Illinois State. "To tell you the truth, as long as Ron Zook is there it will be hard for me to support the University of Illinois football team," he said.

June 26

Illinois agrees to allow "The Journey," a behind-the-scenes program on the Big Ten Network, to chronicle the 2008 season. "Illinois' amazing ride to the Rose Bowl last year was a tremendous accomplishment," BTN executive producer Leon Schweir said. "Everyone is wondering, 'Can they do it again?' We will be there to find out." The plan fizzled as Illinois limped to a 5-7 finish. Players and coaches denied the constant presence of cameras was a distraction, but other Big Ten programs said the attention would not be a good fit on their campus.

Aug. 4

Picked to finish second in the Big Ten by The News-Gazette, Illinois opens Camp Rantoul short-handed. Among the no-shows: Evan Frierson, London Davis, Brian Gamble and Mark Jackson. Frierson and Davis eventually join the team. Gamble and Jackson were not with the Illini during the 2008 season.

Aug. 5

D'Angelo McCray, one of the gems of Ron Zook's 2007 recruiting class, is introduced at Eastern Illinois media day. The defensive tackle never played a down at Illinois and transferred to Bob Spoo's program, where he had 11 tackles in 11 games.

Aug. 9

Sirod Williams injures a knee during workouts. Expected to be a team strength, the defensive line takes a hit because of the season-ending loss of the projected starting tackle. "Sirod is such a great guy and a leader," Ron Zook said.

Aug. 14

Starting receiver Jeff Cumberland (right) is ruled out for the first two to four weeks of the season after breaking a bone in his foot. Without Cumberland or Brian Gamble, the Illinois offense is forced to use inexperienced receivers to complement Arrelious Benn, who would face constant double-teaming as a result.

Aug. 15

Highly touted freshman cornerback Patrick Nixon and freshman receiver Jack Ramsey are kept off the field because of academic issues. Ramsey later joined the team as a partial qualifier but Nixon didn't start school, instead returning to Florida for academic reasons.

Aug. 24

Ron Zook announces practice is closed to media and fans. It's a change from past policy and indicates Zook's unhappiness with information leaking from the program. The ban doesn't affect "The Journey."

Aug. 30

Given a chance to end its slump against Missouri, Illinois gives up the most points in its 119 openers (52). The loss didn't knock Illinois out of the AP Top 25 but made it clear the team had deficiencies at many spots.

Sept. 6

Miami Thomas, best remembered for his interception in the 2007 upset of No. 1 Ohio State, tears his ACL against Eastern Illinois. His season-ending loss takes away a potential playmaker in a secondary already trying to replace two starting safeties.

Sept. 12

Defensive tackle Josh Brent, who had missed the first two games because of what Ron Zook said was "an illness," is cleared to play against Louisiana-Lafayette. He debuts with two tackles and two penalties.

Sept. 13

Ranked 24th, Illinois gives 58,632 home fans a scare with a 20-17 win against Louisiana-Lafayette. The football team played second fiddle to the school's former basketball stars, who played later at the Assembly Hall.

Sept. 23

Leading receiver Arrelious Benn is stopped by university police and cited for driving on a suspended license. At his Oct. 20 court appearance, he asks for a public defender. His next appearance is set for Dec. 15.

Sept. 27

The debut of junior college safety Donsay Hardeman (knee injury) was overshadowed by another defensive/special teams letdown in a 38-24 loss at Penn State. The loss knocks Illinois out of the Top 25 – for good. "For some crazy reason, I've got, I guess, a good feeling. If that's possible," Zook said.

Oct. 11

Riding the high of a rare win against Michigan, heavy favorite Illinois falls short on homecoming against Minnesota and former Illini Tim Brewster. The deflating defeat – Illinois outgained the Gophers 550-312 yards – sends frustrated fans home instead of remaining at Memorial Stadium to watch an outdoor basketball practice on a court positioned behind the south end zone.

Oct. 12

Backup quarterback Eddie McGee is arrested for his involvement during a fight at a campus homecoming dance. McGee, who was given a chance at adult diversion in lieu of criminal charges, is cleared to play the following week by Ron Zook. "We do have good kids," Zook said. "Sometimes they get into situations maybe that you wish they wouldn't, but that's life. Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. He's a good kid. I'm not going to punish him for something that I feel very, very comfortable with the outcome."

Oct. 14

Starting quarterback Juice Williams was ticketed by Urbana police for driving on a suspended license. He was ordered to appear in court Nov. 10 but arrived late, resulting in the issuance of a warrant for his arrest for failure to appear. He appeared in court Nov. 20, the judge quashed the warrant and Williams was ordered back in court Feb. 23.

Oct. 25

Favored to win at Wisconsin, Illinois gives up 17 unanswered points in the second half in a game that marked the end of any Big Ten title or Jan. 1 bowl game hopes. "You better have it strapped up," Zook said. "Two years in a row now, we haven't done that. That's where your leadership has got to come in. We've got to get it corrected."

Oct. 27

Ron Zook cuts short his postpractice interview session after a college newspaper reporter asks the coach about possible changes. "I don't know. Have you got any ideas? Everybody seems to have ideas. I'll take them all. Here's the deal, we'll be ready to go, OK. Don't worry about it, we're going to be ready to go." Illinois beat Iowa 27-24 the next time out, its final win of the season.

Oct. 30

Ron Zook says starting tailback Daniel Dufrene has not practiced to take care of "personal problems" and that he'd likely miss the Iowa game. "I'm worried about Daniel right now," Zook said. "He'll be fine. We just got to work through this thing."

Nov. 1

Freshman running back Mikel Leshoure sustains a season-ending broken jaw during an altercation with teammate Jeff Cumberland. Leshoure's loss further depletes a running game that winds up fifth in the Big Ten after being first the previous two seasons. "I'm very disappointed something like this has occurred," Ron Zook said. Cumberland continues to play but is kept off limits to the media.

Nov. 7

Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley (below), in Detroit on the eve of Illinois' game against Western Michigan, interviews for the Clemson head coaching position. Locksley's name later surfaces with the Syracuse opening. A day later, Illinois loses to Western Michigan in front of the smallest crowd (12,865) to attend an Illini game since 1945. The Illini played without linebacker Ian Thomas and fullback Rahkeem Smith, who were held back for violation of team rules. "I told the seniors, 'You guys are going to determine what kind of legacy you're going to leave here.' These next 14 days are going to be crucial. We can fold our tent and put it away if that's what they want to do," Zook said.

Nov. 8

Leading tackler Brit Miller is given a notice to appear in court for obstructing a peace officer and resisting arrest. During a bar sweep by campus and state police, Miller repeatedly was told to get away from a bus being used for detention purposes. Miller was handcuffed briefly before being released.

Nov. 15

Illinois loses to Ohio State for the seventh consecutive time at Memorial Stadium. Star cornerback Vontae Davis continues to decline postgame interview requests, reportedly upset about having to answer questions about his potential early entry into the NFL draft.

Nov. 21

Illinois arrives in Evanston for a must win without starting linebacker Martez Wilson (violation of team rules). A lackluster performance in a 27-10 defeat to Northwestern keeps Illinois from making consecutive bowl appearances for the first time since 1991 and '92. It also leaves Illinois as the first team to go from the Rose Bowl to a losing record since Michigan in 1965.

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports

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dguire wrote on November 30, 2008 at 11:11 am

This all looks like excuses to me. Regardless of the above list of reasons why things didn't go right this year; there was no excuse to finish 5-7. It looked like this team quit after they lost the Minnesota game and they were never able to gain their swagger back. I blame that on coaching. Last year appears to have been a fluke, much like the history of the Illinois football program. Like I've said in the past; I'm not expecting a national title contender every year but is it not too much to ask for a consistent winner?

Illini Nation has put up with a lot of mediocre programs passed off by the News Gazette and the athletic director as "almost there" and "teams on the rise". We get these stupid little things by the athletic and marketing departments like the Illini walk and all these other fake traditions to build fan excitement when all it would take is a football team that can win its home games. The stadium renovation resulted in higher ticket prices and a further loss of true fans that have supported this crap on the field because they couldn't afford the hike in prices. If you're going to raise my prices, then as a fan I demand a product worth seeing.

It sucks to not be excited about the bowl season AGAIN because I root for a football team that can't seem to get it right.

illiniart wrote on November 30, 2008 at 11:11 am

As you read this, injuries were critical to our performance. However, you have to be shcoked at the number of incidents by the players. Is the real problem that we really don't have good kids as Ron says..or that they are not being disciplined enough?

Illinigrad wrote on November 30, 2008 at 2:11 pm

Actually, for the past half century few Illinois football teams and their respective coaching staffs and administrators above the staffs have "gotten it right", so to speak. The lows far outnumber the highs. The 2008 football season just adds to the tally of dismal failures.

MarkHoekstra wrote on November 30, 2008 at 4:11 pm

THe silence from Saint Guenther is deafening.

LoyalIllini wrote on November 30, 2008 at 6:11 pm

It is time for fans to reclaim the team from the DIA and N-G (Tate) and insist on winning teams ... or else. We have the clout to pull this off because UI President White needs us all to help with the Brilliant Future's Campaign which has the goal to "secure the reputation of the University of Illinois as the nation’s top public university". Note this doesn't sound like the language from many fans and writers that a 5-7 program or worse is OK based on our history. Hey N-G, help us get past the history channel and tune into a new future.

Stormillini wrote on November 30, 2008 at 6:11 pm

Sounds like an article from a ticked off writer who did not get the access he wanted. My guess is had you not lost the ability to cover the team as you would have liked, this article never would have been written. If you are going to post every athlete who has gotten stopped for a suspended license, then why not post every athlete from every program. Heck why not post every student at the U of I who did the same. I would bet the ratio is no different. Sounds like a little kid who did not get the candy he desired. Wah!!!! Now why not write an article about the seniors who graduated from the program and the positive things these student athletes did in this community!! I guess that would not be a story would it Bob. After all that would be a positive article about some good things these kids did in the community!!!!

BigTenFan wrote on November 30, 2008 at 9:11 pm

After taking a look at that list, it is pretty obvious that what the Illini did not have this year was LEADERSHIP! From the top to the bottom, the leadership was non-existent. I will call out all the coach's and even Brit Miller as failures. Brit (aka Jokester) may have had some good stats but he was to be the leader/enforcer and he turned out to be a joke, literally.

oskeewowwow wrote on December 03, 2008 at 10:12 am
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Great synopsis. My take? A monumental disappointment for sure. After last year’s phenomenal run (or fluke, if you prefer), which Coach Zook proclaimed to be a stepping stone to greatness, the program has taken several steps backward this year. The loss of Leman and Mendenhall clearly hurt this team, but that is no excuse for what I see on the field. This is a much bigger, and more insidious, problem. Not only are the Illini unable to match the effort and intensity of their opponents, but they continue to make the same fundamental mistakes every week – bad penalties, costly turnovers, and missed tackles. Coaching mistakes abound, too – poor clock management, questionable play calls in key situations on both sides of the ball, terrible special teams play, and an overall lack of leadership and accountability.

And can we please end the Juice Williams Experiment? I’m sick and tired of being told that he's getting better and continues to mature. Enough. He can’t read defenses, he routinely makes poor decisions (and takes too long to make them), and his passing accuracy is abysmal. He’s not a big-time quarterback and never will be, but apparently Juice doesn’t realize this. After the Northwestern beat-down he said, “You guys saw the immaturity I had as a freshman quarterback, the mistakes I made my freshman year and even early in my sophomore year,” but now he’s a “polished quarterback.” Uh, Juice, you make those same mistakes every week and you are anything but polished.

And finally, to you Illini Nation, I issue a challenge: We need to stand up and demand excellence from our football program, which is what Coach Zook promised when he came to Champaign. I rarely hear a dissenting voice when the Illini play poorly. Instead I hear, “Oh well, they tried,” or worse, “We’ll get ‘em next year.” We are the Cubs fans of the Big Ten. I got into an argument with a “fan” at the Ohio State game who was upset when I booed Juice after his second turnover. I guess he felt I should support the team no matter what rather than voice my displeasure. He is exactly what’s wrong with Illini fans. We tolerate mediocrity. Do you know why the Ohio States of the world are contenders every year? Because they expect to win and that attitude permeates every aspect of their program. Well, I want to win. I expect to win. Losing is no longer acceptable.

LoyalIllini wrote on December 04, 2008 at 6:12 am

Great post oskeewowwow. Hopefully your vision and intensity will have a quick ripple effect including into Zook's office.

guitaraxe1 wrote on December 04, 2008 at 7:12 am

The Illini accomplished way more than they were capable of during the Rose Bowl year...and their lineup was chock full of seniors. This year. the Illini were a young team across the board. Other than Juice---a junior, and Brit Miller---a senior, name any other contributing "skilled position" player who was an upperclassmen. You can't. This team had .500% written all over it. Yes, there were some losses that were particularly galling.... especially the Minnesota and Western Michigan games.... where the Illini just seemed out of sorts right from the start. The biggest thing I noticed from watching every game was that Juice Williams seemed distracted. He would look like a world beater one minute and the next minute there would be a stupid penalty or he would have a pass intercepted off of a tipped pass. One minute I would be excited because it looked like Juice was finally putting touch on his passes, then the next minute he would be throwing a pass that only Bobby Douglas---former Chicago Bear Quarterback---would be proud of. One pass in particular stands out. It was 3rd and 7 in the 3rd quarter of the Ohio State game. The Illini were driving. A score would have really tightened the game and put some more pressure on the Buckeyes. Juice goes back to pass and fires a 100 mile an hour fastball at Arrelious Benn which Benn had no chance to haul in because the pass is a little bit high...and the Illini dejectedly walk off the field. That was pretty much it for that game... and the season.