Ron Zook put it best after Fresno State offensive tackle Devan Cunningham scored a 2-point conversion off of a deflected pass with two seconds remaining to hand Illinois a 53-52 loss on Saturday.
"The way the season was going," Zook said, "it's not a big surprise that the game went like that."
Cunningham's plunge marked a heartbreaking end to a miserable season for Illinois, which has lost all the momentum it generated from the Rose Bowl run in 2007. Illinois fell apart in the opener against Missouri and never got on track, tumbling to 3-9 and earning the tag of Big Ten's biggest disappointment for the second consecutive season.
Things looked promising at Camp Rantoul, as Illinois boasted the Big Ten's most experienced quarterback in Juice Williams and seemingly the league's best group of wide receivers, led by Arrelious Benn. But Benn went down with an ankle injury early in the Missouri game, and the offense stalled. Injuries and poor play doomed a once-promising unit and Zook changed quarterbacks midseason, only to go back to Williams for the stretch run.
While the offense seemed to find a rhythm in the last five games, the defense couldn't keep it together. The season-ending loss of linebacker Martez Wilson certainly played a role, but Illinois hemorrhaged yards and points at the end. Aside from a two-game win streak that briefly elevated bowl hopes, nothing went right for the Illini in 2009.
Offensive MVP: Mikel LeShoure. The sophomore quietly had a very solid season rushing the football. LeShoure led Illinois and ranked fifth in the Big Ten in rushing yards (734). He averaged 6.8 yards a carry, scored seven touchdowns (5 rush, 2 receiving) and ended with a huge performance against Fresno State.
Defensive MVP: Clay Nurse. Nurse developed into a solid pass-rusher for Illinois, leading the team in both tackles for loss (10.5) and sacks (5.5) to go along with two forced fumbles. His four-sack performance in Illinois' win against Minnesota tied the second-highest single-game total in team history.
Turning point: It's never good when the turning point takes place in the opening game, but Illinois never looked right from the get-go. The Illini got crushed 37-9 by Missouri in the season opener, and after a two-week respite, their offensive woes returned in a 30-0 loss at Ohio State. Illinois' slim bowl hopes went out the window after its rally fell short against Northwestern on Nov. 14.
What's next: Zook is expected to return, but athletic director Ron Guenther said there will be changes on the staff for next year. Ticket sales are struggling, and the team has only eight verbal commitments for 2009, so Zook definitely needs some magic on the recruiting trail, where he's done his best work as a college coach.