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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.