Dienhart: Illinois 2011 Season Recap

BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart spent the season covering Big Ten football, and now it’s time for his team-by-team season recaps. Every day, for the next 12 days, Dienhart will post a recap for each Big Ten school, in alphabetical order. Up first: Illinois. Watch our video from the Illini’s impressive nonconference victory over Arizona State now and read Dienhart’s season recap in this post.

ILLINOIS

Record: 6-6 overall; 2-6 Big Ten

Bowl: Kraft Fight Hunger vs. UCLA

Season recap: A season of contrasts ultimately cost Ron Zook his job after seven seasons. Illinois raced to a 6-0 start and No. 17 ranking, the best since 1951. But the offense struggled down the stretch, at one point failing to score in the first half in four games in a row during the first four games of the season-ending losing streak. In the end, Illinois became the first FBS team to win its first six games and lose its last six. Illinois’ offense finished ninth in the Big Ten in scoring (22.8 ppg). The passing game was a big issue, as Illinois was using two quarterbacks near the end of the year in an attempt to find some continuity and rhythm. Even worse: The Illini led the Big Ten in turnovers with 27. But Illinois is going to bowls in consecutive seasons for the first time since a five-year run from 1988-1992.

High point: Following a 41-20 mauling of the Hoosiers at Indiana, the Fighting Illini were 6-0, ranked No. 17 and thinking about winning the Leaders Division. And a Rose Bowl berth even seemed possible, with the offense and defense clicking.

Low point: During the six-game skid to end the season, Illinois never scored more than 17 points in any game and on three occasions scored just seven. A season-ending 27-7 loss at Minnesota—which had just one win in its previous eight games before playing the Illini–may have been the nadir. Illinois had hung its hat on a strong run game under Zook. But line issues led to the team ranking just seventh in the Big Ten in rushing (171.2 ypg).

Offensive MVP: WR A.J. Jenkins. He was the lone constant for a sporadic offense. Jenkins led the Big Ten in receptions with 84 for 1,196 yards and seven touchdowns. He was at his best in a game vs. Northwestern, when he caught 12 passes 268 yards and three touchdowns.

Defensive MVP: DE Whitney Mercilus. The most dominant defender in the Big Ten, Mercilus paced the nation in sacks and ranked sixth in tackles for loss after seemingly coming out from nowhere. The guy was unblockable at times en route to winning the Hendricks Award as the nation’s top end.

Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com. Find all of his work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow Dienhart on Twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, send a question to his weekly mailbag here, and click here to subscribe to his RSS feed.

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