Adversity didn’t even wait for the season to start before it arrived on campus for Illinois, and shuffling the coaching staff with barely a week to adjust before the first game was far from ideal for Bill Cubit and the team he unexpectedly took over on short notice.
The Illini really had no choice but to move on from Tim Beckman after all of his numerous missteps were revealed in detail, including the troubling accusations about his handling of injured players. But that left Cubit in a difficult spot, created some unnecessary distractions for the Illini just before taking the field for a season that included bowl hopes and eventually also made it difficult to truly evaluate the program moving forward.
There were some bright spots, and at the end of the year there was even a chance the Illini could sneak into the postseason thanks to a high APR and the lack of enough eligible teams with 6 wins elsewhere. But Illinois and Cubit did close with a losing record (5-7, 2-6 Big Ten), and an interesting offseason awaits for a team that shouldn’t have as many hurdles thrown at them next year.
Grading the offense: C-minus
Considering the Illini had been far better known for their ability to put up points on offense instead of preventing them on defense, it was surprising to see them struggle the way they did this fall. There were injuries that no doubt slowed down the passing attack, but finishing No. 12 in the Big Ten with just 22.7 points per game would have been hard to imagine during training camp when the potential for fireworks seemed high with Wes Lunt healthy and ready to air it out at quarterback. When spring football rolls around, the offense will actually be the one under pressure to take the biggest steps forward.
Grading the defense: B-minus
The tackling still wasn’t flawless and the Illini delivered a couple performances that were reminiscent of the Beckman Era, but for the most part the defense was notably improved. In fact, Cubit’s best victory of the season wouldn’t have been possible without some stingy work on that side of the ball, with Illinois holding Nebraska to just 13 points in a win that at the time made it look like the team was destined for a bowl game. That didn’t quite pan out, thanks in part to 39-point blowout by Penn State and Minnesota enjoying one of its most successful outings of the year against the Illini. But the unit still climbed into the middle of the pack by allowing just 23 points per game, raising expectations down the road.
Grading the special teams: C-plus
There weren’t many units better than the one the Illini trotted out to block kicks, knocking down five of them over the course of the season and generating a couple touchdowns on special teams in the process. But Illinois was just average when it punted, largely failed to generate much momentum in the return game and didn’t get much field-goal accuracy from Taylor Zalewski as he missed nine attempts. There’s still work to be done in the third phase, though at least the Illini know they can get their hands in the way of a few kicks.
Grading the coaching: B
Effort was rarely a question for the Illini, and that’s significant for Cubit and a staff that could have easily lost the team in a hurry after the turmoil that popped up late in training camp with Beckman. Illinois was far from perfect, and there is plenty of work to be done, but Cubit clearly won over his troops this season based on the numerous calls for his interim tag to be removed -- and that should bode well for him heading into 2016.
Player of the year: RB Josh Ferguson
The threat he provided on offense as both a rusher and a target for the passing game wasn’t exactly a secret, but unfortunately for Illinois, it was when Ferguson was missing from the lineup that his true value might have been most apparent. After the productive first half of the season leading up to the win over Nebraska, the senior missed the next three games -- and the Illini lost them all. He returned the following week at Purdue and promptly delivered 174 total yards and a touchdown to spark a blowout victory, and filling the void left by the loss of the team’s leader in all-purpose yardage this season will be critical for Cubit.
Best moment: Geronimo Allison’s game-winning touchdown against Nebraska
The Illini may have needed some assistance from the Huskers just to find themselves in position for a late comeback. But regardless of what it took to set up the stage, Lunt and Allison shined when the spotlight was on and hooked up for a moment they aren’t likely to forget. The play only covered 1-yard, but needing a touchdown in the closing seconds to pull off an upset, Lunt rolled to his right, Allison beat the coverage on him and the dramatic connection in the end zone provided what was undoubtedly the high-water mark of the year for the Illini.
Unsung hero: DE Dawuane Smoot
Often overlooked in a crowded field of pass rushing terrors in the Big Ten, the Illinois junior quietly put together one of the best seasons in the league while leading the team in both sacks and tackles for loss. After taking down the quarterback eight times, finishing with 15 takedowns in the backfield overall and adding three forced fumbles and a pair of recoveries on top of that, Smoot was already on the radar of opposing offensive coordinators this season -- and he should be poised for even more attention next year.