The program hasn’t returned to respectability yet in the Big Ten, but at least Illinois was able to get back in the win column before the season was over.
There were some signs outside of conference play that the rebuilding job might be ahead of schedule for the Illini, but once they got back inside the league, there wasn’t much to feel good about until a late victory over Purdue ended an ugly 20-game losing streak in the Big Ten.
The good news for Illinois is that skid is over. The bad news moving forward is it must replace do-it-all quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase as it closes the book on 2013 and tries to get back into a bowl game in 2014.
Offensive MVP: QB Nathan Scheelhaase. Through all the rough patches and the piles of defeats, the Illini did know they could always rely on Scheelhaase to provide some entertainment and plenty of production leading the attack. With a final 300-yard passing outing to close the season, Scheelhaase broke the school record for total offense previously held by Juice Williams, another indicator of just how much he’s given the program over the last few years.
Defensive MVP: LB Jonathan Brown. Wherever the football was, Brown was a safe bet to be nearby as he did everything he could to help the Illini turn things around defensively. He led the team in total tackles (119), tackles for loss (15) and sacks (5), and for good measure the senior added a forced fumble and an interception as another veteran at least went out on a personal high note for Illinois.
Best moment: The future looked mighty bright after two games, particularly on the heels of a 45-17 throttling of a Cincinnati team that would eventually go on to win nine games. Scheelhaase produced four touchdowns as the offense exploded, Mason Monheim paced an aggressive defensive performance with a pair of tackles for loss and everything appeared to be trending in the right direction. The buzz was short lived, and it would never be that positive again for the Illini.
Worst moment: The gap between the Big Ten’s elite programs was never likely to shrink that much this season, so blowout scores against division champions like Michigan State and Ohio State weren’t much of a surprise. But the struggles against the rest of the pack were troubling, most notably a 37-34 loss at home to end the season against Northwestern. The Wildcats had been ravaged by injuries and hadn’t won a conference game all year, and dropping that decision a week after ending the epic losing streak wasn’t a strong way to capitalize on any momentum the Illini might have had heading into the offseason.