Illinois Fighting Illini season recap

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

No one expected another Rose Bowl appearance from Illinois this fall. But no one expected this, either.

A year after reaching Pasadena, Illinois will stay home for the holidays, the product of a 5-7 record that once seemed unthinkable for a preseason top 20 squad. Despite returning key parts from the Rose Bowl team, the Illini were plagued by inconsistency on the field and some disciplinary issues off of it. They lost to teams with inferior talent and won consecutive games only once, against Eastern Illinois and Louisiana-Lafayette in September.

Head coach Ron Zook insisted throughout the season that the 2008 Illinois team was better than its predecessor, and at times he seemed right.

Quarterback Juice Williams carried the team through the first half of the year, setting total offense records at three different venues (Edward Jones Dome, Michigan Stadium and Memorial Stadium). Wideout Arrelious Benn surged midway through the season and Brit Miller transitioned well to middle linebacker, leading the Big Ten in tackles (132).

But the Illini never stayed on track. They missed star running back Rashard Mendenhall and safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison. Williams threw nine interceptions in his last five games. A defensive line that Zook called the team's strength entering the season struggled against the run. The team appeared fractured at times, as a fight between running back Mikel LeShoure and wideout Jeff Cumberland left LeShoure with a broken jaw. Other players missed time due to suspension or leave of absence.

Illinois returns plenty of talent for 2009, but the Illini must build better chemistry and consistency to get back to the top of the league.

Offensive MVP -- Wide receiver Arrelious Benn
Williams had this award locked up midway through the fall, but his tumultuous finish gives the nod to Benn, who was fabulous in Big Ten play. He led the league in receiving yards (1,055) and racked up 794 yards in conference games. The dynamic sophomore had the most receptions in Big Ten play (45) and topped the chart in yards per catch (17.6).

Defensive MVP -- Linebacker Brit Miller
Miller deserved better performances from those around him after stepping in nicely for All-American J Leman at middle linebacker. The senior led the Big Ten and ranked fifth nationally in tackles (132, 11 tpg). He also led Illinois in sacks (6) and had a fumble return for a touchdown. The Illini defense regressed this fall, but Miller certainly did his part.

Turning point -- Nov. 8 vs. Western Michigan (at Detroit)
A major bowl game was off the table, but Illinois could have reached bowl eligibility and set up a strong finish by beating Western Michigan in Detroit. Coming off an emotion-charged win against rival Iowa, the Illini offense flat-lined in the first half and showed up too late for a rally. A 23-17 loss at Ford Field kicked off a three-game slide to close the season.

What's next
Williams and all his weapons return on offense, but the departure of coordinator Mike Locksley to New Mexico could bring some growing pains. The bigger losses will be on the defensive side, as Miller graduates and cornerback Vontae Davis likely enters the NFL draft. But the talent will be there for a turnaround in Champaign. If Illinois can build better team unity, it should rejoin the top half of the league.