After surprising 2007 season, Illini dealing with 'revenge factor'
The remarkable turnaround last football season by the Illinois football team already is history. This season, the Illini must deal with huge expectations, a difficult schedule and a target on their backs.
"We've got some big questions to fill in all three phases,'' said Illinois football coach Ron Zook on Thursday, the first of two Big Ten Conference preseason media days. "I can't say enough about the way our guys worked. They understand the mood out there: ‘Is it just a one-and-done year for Illinois?’ It's a great challenge for us.''
Picked to finish third behind league favorite Ohio State and runner-up Wisconsin in the preseason Big Ten media poll, the Illini will attempt to put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since the 1989 and 1990 seasons. Illinois hasn't made back-to-back bowl appearances since the 1991 and 1992 seasons.
After winning four games in Zook's first two seasons as coach, Illinois posted a 9-4 record overall with a 6-2 mark in the Big Ten last fall. For an encore, the Illini have little chance of stealing a win. Picked as high as No. 10 nationally by The Sporting News, Illinois can't fly under the radar.
"We're the hunted now,'' said junior quarterback Juice Williams. "We're not a team that will sneak up on anybody. They want to beat us and make a statement for their team. Every night, we have to bring our A game.''
Fans already answered with their wallets. After single-game tickets went on sale Tuesday, home games against Ohio State and Iowa already sold out. The Indiana game is nearing a sellout. Needless to say, the orange-and-blue crowd awaits a big season.
"We have some expectations we haven't had in a while,'' senior middle linebacker Brit Miller said. "We knew we could win and could compete last year. Now we have to go out there and stay on top. Ranked third (in the Big Ten) right now, that's pretty generous. We haven't put together two great seasons in a row recently. That's what we need to do.''
The schedule doesn't help. After opening in St. Louis against Missouri -- likely a top 5 team in the preseason -- Illinois plays only six home games, which is the fewest among Big Ten teams. The Illini play at Wisconsin and Penn State (signature home victories last season). Illinois also hits the road against Michigan. After upsetting top-ranked Ohio State in Columbus last season, the Buckeyes head to Memorial Stadium in November.
"People are going to be looking at us with the revenge factor,'' Miller said.
The victory over Ohio State and playing in the Rose Bowl last winter set the bar high and put the Illini renovation project way ahead of schedule, even if last season ended in a decisive 49-17 loss to Southern Cal in Pasadena, Calif.
Zook learned the hard way in his first head-coaching gig at Florida that the clock is always ticking.
"We're going as fast as we can go,'' Zook said. "I learned at the last job that you get 2 1/2 years. You have to go as fast as you can go and do things you have to do. (Athletic director) Ron Guenther has given us everything we need. We've been fortunate to get great kids, not just great players.
"You can't relax. In football, you're only as good as your last game. We weren't as good in our last game.''
Illinois must answer questions at running back, linebacker and placekicker. Illinois led the Big Ten in rushing for a second straight season, but Rashard Mendenhall was a first-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Junior Daniel Dufrene starts in the first string at running back, but the position will be handled by a committee that also includes redshirt freshman Troy Pollard and true freshmen Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford.
Miller moves to the middle to fill the void left by J Leman, a team leader and overachiever. Recruited freshman Derek Dimke of Rockford Boylan is expected to earn the job at placekicker, though Zook wasn't yet ready to put him atop the depth chart.
"I'm hoping Derek can contribute right away,'' Zook said. "There's no question he has the tools, but you're not sure until you see him out there under pressure.''
NOTE: Ohio State running back Chris "Beanie'' Wells was named preseason Big Ten offensive player of the year in a media vote. Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis received preseason defensive player of the year. The league only releases the top three teams in the media poll. … Illinois redshirt freshman defensive tackle D'Angelo McCray spent part of the summer at home in Jacksonville, Fla., but returned to campus to finish the summer semester. McCray isn't listed on the roster, although he still may remain with the Illini.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.
Illinois football schedule
Home games in caps
Aug. 30 -- vs. Missouri, at St. Louis, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
Sept. 6 -- EASTERN ILLINOIS, 11 a.m., BTN
Sept. 13 -- LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE, 11 a.m., BTN
Sept. 20 -- bye
Sept. 27 -- at Penn State, 7 p.m.
Oct. 4 -- at Michigan, 2:30 p.m., ABC
Oct. 11 -- MINNESOTA, 11 a.m.
Oct. 18 -- INDIANA, 7 p.m., BTN
Oct. 25 -- at Wisconsin, 11 a.m.
Nov. 1 -- IOWA
Nov. 8 -- vs. Western Michigan, at Detroit, 11 a.m.
Nov. 15 -- OHIO STATE
Nov. 22 -- at Northwestern
NOTE: Some gametimes, TV assignments haven't yet been made.