College football's ultimate all-or-nothing program finally had a season that ended up right in the middle.
After a decade that featured two BCS bowl appearances and eight losing seasons, Illinois rebounded from a 3-9 disaster in 2009 to go 6-6 in the regular season. The coaching staff overhaul seemed to pay off as coordinators Paul Petrino (offense) and Vic Koenning (defense) orchestrated improvement on both sides of the ball. Illinois rivaled Michigan State as the Big Ten's top squad in the kicking game, as specialists Anthony Santella and Derek Dimke both earned All-Big Ten honors.
The thing that still doesn't sit well with the Illini is their inconsistency. Illinois held its own in the first half of the season and improved to 5-3 with impressive wins against Indiana and Purdue. But after losing a 67-65 triple-overtime shootout to Michigan, the Illini looked flat in their home finale against 1-9 Minnesota. Illinois responded the next week at Wrigley Field against Northwestern but once again came out flat in Friday night's loss to Fresno State.
The talent is in Champaign and the future looks good, especially if several key players return for their senior seasons. But there are still questions about whether coach Ron Zook can foster the consistent play and consistent improvement Illinois needs to avoid decades like the last one.
Offensive MVP: Mikel Leshoure. The junior was undoubtedly the Big Ten's top running back this season and one of the best in the country. Leshoure finished the regular season ranked eighth nationally in rushing average (126.1 ypg). He recorded eight games of 100 rush yards or more, including a team-record 330-yard explosion against Northwestern at Wrigley Field. A physical back with breakaway speed, Leshoure is the total package. Redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase should be acknowledged here as well.
Defensive MVP: Martez Wilson. The former blue chip recruit finally blossomed this season and earned All-Big Ten honors for his efforts. Wilson led Illinois in tackles (105), tackles for loss (10.5) and sacks (4). He added three forced fumbles, four quarterback hurries, four pass breakups, an interception, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick. Defensive tackle Corey Liuget and linebacker Nate Bussey merit mentions here.
Turning point: Illinois showed it had turned a corner Oct. 9 by winning in State College for the first time in team history, and doing so in very impressive fashion. The Illini surged to a 33-13 win and received big performances on both sides of the ball, especially from a defense that held Penn State to seven first downs and 235 total yards. A second turning point arrived at Michigan as surging Illinois lost a historic shootout in overtime and had a hangover the next week against Minnesota.
What's next: The Illini head to a non-BCS bowl for the first time since 1999 as they take on Baylor in the Texas Bowl at Houston's Reliant Stadium. A victory secures Illinois' first winning season since 2007 and just the team's second under Zook. A loss certainly would raise questions about Zook's leadership going forward, although he'll be back in 2011. Illinois could be very good next fall if players like Leshoure, Wilson and Liuget return for their senior years.