Having reached the halfway point of the 2010 season, the Illinois Fighting Illini football team has to be feeling good about its 3-3 record following a brutal schedule to start the Big Ten.
For the most part, Illinois has played smart and confident, and thus appears to be on track to a postseason bowl game (although it’s never safe to assume anything when it comes to Illini football).
Here is a look at the Illini at the “halftime” of their season.
What We’ve Learned
At 3-3, Illinois is right on track with Writing Illini’s preseason predictions, with the difference proving to a road win at Penn State as opposed to Michigan State.
Here’s how some of the Illini players who were highlighted in our first quarter breakdown have progressed since then.
- Nathan Scheelhaase
The freshman quarterback continues to have his ups and downs.
After a decent game against the Ohio State Buckeyes, Scheelhaase was simply incredible against Penn State.
In his first road start, Scheelhaase posted career highs in completions and completion percentage and more importantly, did not turn the ball over.
Last weekend, Scheelhaase struggled a bit against the #7 Michigan State Spartans, but he should bounce back against a less stingy Indiana defense.
- Mikel Leshoure
Leshoure is becoming a victim of his own success.
Opponents have tweaked their defenses to focus on the junior as he breaks into the top 20 statistically in almost all rushing categories.
Leshoure was held to under 100 yards against both the Buckeyes and the Spartans, but is still having a great season.
- AJ Jenkins
Jenkins has already reached a career high for receiving yards through only 6 games this season.
The junior leads the team in receiving yards, touchdowns, and longest reception (54 yards for a touchdown against SIU).
Not bad for a player who almost transferred before the season because of a disappointing sophomore year.
With that said, it would be nice to see Illinois get more confidence in its passing game, thus utilizing Jenkins and Jarred Fayson more often.
- Ian Thomas
Thomas continues to have an impressive season, but he has been overtaken by fellow linebacker Martez Wilson for defensive leader.
Wilson leads the team in tackles, tackles for a loss, sacks and fumbles forced.
Both players are a big reason that Illinois is currently 20th in the nation in total defense.
- Justin Green
Green had to take over for Terry Hawthorne when the star cornerback injured himself in the preseason.
Now that Hawthorne is back, Green is seeing less playing time, but the fact that he is still in rotation after being on offense until the week before the season tell volumes about how well he did in Hawthorne’s absence.
- Derek Dimke
Dimke had the only miss of his career on a long kick into the wind against the Buckeyes, but he didn’t let it get to him. He is currently 8th in the nation in field goals made and leads the nation in made field goals from farther than 50 yards.
- Anthony Santella
For a brief period, Santella led the nation in average punting distance. He is currently 5th in the nation.
Santella has been in the top 5 all year and is a serious contender for the Ray Guy award for the nation’s top punter.
Who Impressed in the Second Half of the 2010 Season?
In addition to Martez Wilson, some Illini who have stood out in the last three games have been safety Trulon Henry (2 interceptions against Ohio State), Nate Bussey (an interception and touchdown return against Penn State) and Corey Liuget (11 tackles against Michigan State).
Other players who probably deserve a little more attention on Writing Illini are Travon Bellamy and Tavon Wilson, who have been solid even if they are not necessarily always noticeable.
The Illinois defensive line has been very solid as a unit (especially against the run) and the offensive line play has been pretty strong at creating some room for Leshoure and protecting Scheelhaase.
What Should We Think of the 3-3 Fighting Illini?
With six games under their belt and all three losses coming to highly-ranked teams, this year’s Illini have started to form their own identity.
Illinois has typically been very strong on defense and mostly just decent enough on offense, and also shown the confidence that was lacking from the team a year ago.
The Illini are 1-2 in conference play but have already faced their toughest opponents on their schedule.
The second half of the season should be much more manageable.
Illinois must be sure to close out the season strong and not struggle in the second half of the season as it has struggled in the second halves of games.
What’s Surprised Us about the Illini?
- Second Half Struggles
In the first quarter review, Writing Illini mentioned the second half struggles against Missouri and NIU as a potential weakness for the team.
Unfortunately, this problem has not gotten any better.
Both Ohio State and Michigan State owned the second half against the Illini offense. In simple terms, the Illini need to come out of the half ready to score.
It would be nice to see the Illini be a little more aggressive with its offensive playcalling when competing with the big dogs in the second half.
The defense has been solid pretty much all game long for the Illini, but the offense needs to remove these dips in production to keep the team in bowl contention.
- Defensive Resurgence
The defensive squad has made astonishing improvements form a year ago.
The Illini defense currently ranks near the top 20 in almost every category after being in the low 60’s or worse across the board last season.
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning deserves a lot of credit for the rapid turn about, but so do the players themselves.
The Illinois defense is still a rather young squad comparatively, and its success on the field bodes well for the future.
Here is a look at Illinois’ next 3 games.
Oct. 23rd – Indiana – Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Illinois – 11:00 am CT
- Both teams are looking for a big win here. The Hoosiers have not won a conference road game since 2007. The Illini have not won a homecoming game since ’07 either. One of these streaks will fall as both teams fight to make it to a bowl game.
Oct. 30th – Purdue – Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Illinois – 11:00 am CT
- The Boilermakers are suffering from several big injuries yet are still undefeated in league play. That may change by the time they make it to Illinois, having to go through the vengeful Buckeyes, but you can bet lack of confidence won’t be a problem.
Nov. 6th – Michigan – Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Michigan – TBD
- Illinois has won its previous two meetings against the Wolverines for the first time since 1957-58. The Michigan offense is much improved from last year, but its defense is still vulnerable. Can the Illini make it 3 in a row?
Illini Team Grade at the Half: B-
Illinois is right where they need to be for a successful season.
What hurt the team grade more than the 3-3 record was Illinois’ second half troubles.
If the team can fix this problem and get some second half offense together, Illinois may even surpass Writing Illini’s prediction of a 7-5 season.
Illinois’ next three games are all very winnable and feature teams with weaker defenses.
However, the opposing offenses are hardly anything to scoff at, and there is no such thing as sure win in the Big Ten (maybe Ohio State – Minnesota, but not for the Illini).
The team deserves a ton of credit for how far it has come since last season, and so does the coaching staff.
Both Koenning and new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino have this team playing well and competing with top opponents, making both of their additions look like steals for the Illini.
Embattled head coach Ron Zook also deserves some credit.
Whether Zook admits it or not, he has faced a lot of pressure this season. Zook has conducted himself well, and his team is following his lead.
The Illini could have easily taken the Minnesota route and folded under the pressure, but instead they appear to be headed to the team’s 16th bowl game.
Here’s to a successful second half of the season.
Tags: A.J. Jenkins AJ Jenkins Anthony Santella Derek Dimke Football Four Downs Ian Thomas Illini Illinois Illinois Fighting Illini Illinois Fighting Illini Football Illinois Football Indiana Indiana Football Indiana Hoosiers Justin Green Martez Wilson Michigan Football Michigan State Michigan State Football Michigan State Spartans Michigan Wolverines Michigan Wolverines Football Mikel Leshoure Minnesota Football Minnesota Golden Gophers Missouri Missouri Tigers Missouri Tigers Football Nathan Scheelhaase NIU Football Paul Petrino Penn State Penn State Football Penn State Nittany Lions Purdue Purdue Boilermakers Purdue Cannon Purdue Football Ron Zook Ron Zook Nathan Scheelhaase SIU Football Terry Hawthorne University Of Illinois Vic Koenning Writing Illini Zooker