What we Learned from Fighting Illini Football Spring Game

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A small select group of things are certain in life- death, taxes, and Fighting Illini football seasons ending up much different than what you expected in the preseason. Last year’s team wasn’t expected to really do much- Yet the finished 7-6 (despite a very difficult schedule) and with a quite decisive bowl victory.

Conversely, in ’08 and ’09, expectations were sky-high heading into September, yet both of those teams flopped (and that’s putting it nicely). So what about this year? Expectations are kind of mixed, “up in the air” you might say as this year’s squad competes to become the first team to reach back-to-back bowl games since 1992.

And that’s fitting, because the 20th anniversary of the 1988-92 teams that made five consecutive bowl games will both be celebrated during the weekend festivities. If Red Grange and Robert Zuppke presided over the “Golden Years,” of Illini college football, then surely the Jeff George/Jason Verduzco/John Mackovic teams were the “silver era” of the program’s history.

That said, let’s begin the journey this fall to finding out whether or not this team will match the ’92 squad’s accomplishment.

By Paul M. Banks

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Like most spring games, the scoring system is extremely hard to follow, but the Blue beat the Orange 26-21. Here’s an explanation:

Illinois Defense (Orange) against the Illinois Offense (Blue). The offense versus defense format was used for both the 2007 and 2008 Illini Spring Games. For the 2009 and 2010 Spring Games, the squad was split evenly and a traditional scoring system was used.

The offense can score the following ways:
First Down – 1 point
PAT – 1 point
Play Over 30 Yards – 2 points
Field Goal – 3 points
Touchdown – 6 points

The defense can score the following ways:
Any stop – 1 point
3 and Out, first series – 2 points
4th Down Stop – 2 points
Turnover – 3 points
Turnover for Touchdown – 9 points

The biggest question of course for 2011 is who replaces departed tailback Mikel Leshoure, who left early for the Illini draft after breaking Rashard Mendenhall‘s single season rushing record.

Ron Zook said Jason Ford could be the guy this year. Although offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said the position is wide open. (We’ll have MUCH MUCH more on this in the upcoming days, and summer.)

Ford is the likely starter, with Troy “bucket of hair” Pollard as the change of pace/3rd down back. But both were held out today, with 3rd stringer Bud Golden and newcomer Ean Days getting the bulk of the carries. Days was the offensive star of the game, with the only touchdown.

With wide receivers Darius Millines and A.J. Jenkins also being held out, Ryan Lankford was the receiving star of the game with 5 catches for a total of 64 yards.

Unofficial stat: Nathan Scheelhaase 9-15 passing, 103 yards, int, no TDs. I say unofficial because he was, of course, no contact in this game.

“Nathan probably threw more balls last year in a year’s time than in his whole life combined, obviously, he’s going to get better. And he is better. It showed out there. He floated one, but there was a pretty good wind, about 18-20 miles per hour. But I thought he threw the ball extremely well, and he is a guy that continually thinks about it, and continually tries to do what the coaches want him to do,” Head Coach Ron Zook said about Scheelhaase’s performance today.

Unofficial stat 2: The Illinois SID estimated attendance today to be only 6,000!

Quotable #1: Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, Asked by John Supine: “can Jonathan Brown be a big contributor for you?”

response “If I don’t choke him first.” before later adding:

“He has become like a fourth son to me.”

THE OFFICIAL SPRING AWARDS
Most Improved Offense: WR Ryan Lankford
Most Improved Defense: LB Ashante Williams (who’s replacing Nate Bussey on the strong side, or playing the SAM position)
Most Improved Walk-on: TE Eddie Viliunas
Best Effort Offense: G Hugh Thornton
Best Effort Defense: LB Houston Bates (the backup to Jonathan Brown at WILL or weakside linebacker)
Faculty Awards for Exemplary Leadership: QB Nathan Scheelhaase and NT Craig Wilson
Chancellor’s Award for Academic Excellence: TE/FB Zach Becker

The Illini will no doubt play multiple formations and sets, but I expect their bread and butter to be a base 4-3, and pro-style, strong-right.

Quotable #2: Koenning on the incoming recruits:

“They’re like basketball players with muscles. A bunch of tall guys.”

Quotable #3: Ron Zook on the months ahead:

“I think these next few months are critical. This is the one time of the year where we have the least contact with ’em and the most improvement can be made between now and August.”

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports

He does a regular guest spot each week for Chicagoland Sports Radio.com You can follow him on Twitter @thesportsbank and Facebook

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