2016 season review: It was a year of transition for Illinois

2016 season review: It was a year of transition for Illinois

The debut for Lovie Smith was bumpy, as expected. It’s a work in progress in Champaign, as the program still lacks talent.

These have been some tumultuous last few years, as Illinois has gone through two abrupt coaching changes, with Tim Beckman getting canned in stunning fashion in August 2015 amid a cloud of controversy surrounding player treatment. Then, Bill Cubit got whacked out of the blue last spring by new A.D. Josh Whitman, who quickly hired Smith. It’s hoped the calm, cool and smart Smith can bring stability, credibility and success to the program, which needs firm bedrock.

The program showed some signs of good things in 2016. Still, a lot of work must be done for a school that has been to just two bowls since 2010. The back seven on defense struggled, save for LBs Hardy Nickerson and Tre Watson, while the offense lacked playmakers, continued to have issues up front and had to start three quarterbacks due to injury. Add it all up, and 2016 was a year of transition for Illinois.

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Record: 3-9 overall; 2-7 Big Ten/ 6th in West

High point: In a three-win season, there aren’t many. But any time you beat the defending Big Ten champs, it’s a big deal. And that’s exactly what the Illini did on Nov. 5 in Champaign, when they dumped Michigan State, 31-27. Jeff George Jr. threw for 140 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning 16-yard score to Sam Mays with 1:35 left, and Kendrick Foster ran 17 times for 146 yards and two TDs. Sure, the Spartans came in struggling, as it was Michigan State’s seventh loss in a row. It didn’t matter. The Fighting Illini needed this, as the win provided a much-needed ray of hope for Illinois.

Low point: The 34-31 OT home loss to Purdue was difficult to swallow. Illinois had a chance to win the game on the final play of regulation but Chase McLaughlin missed a 41-yard field goal that doinked off an upright. (He had made three field goals on the day leading up to his big miss.) Then in OT, Illinois lost a fumble on its first possession. The Boilermakers subsequently booted a game-winning 28-yard field goal. The Illini also lost QB Wes Lunt to injury in the game, but Chayce Crouch took over and looked good, as he ran for 137 yards and two TDs and hit 10-of-14 passes for 142 yards. But Illinois allowed 231 yards rushing and had 12 penalties for 125 yards in losing to what would be the last place team in the Big Ten West that the week before had gotten hammered by 43 points at Maryland.

Offensive MVP: RB Kendrick Foster. The mighty mite running back led the team with 720 yards rushing, averaging 5.7 yards per tote with seven TDs. Not bad for a guy who entered the year with just 78 career yards rushing. And at one point earlier in his tenure at Illinois, he considered transferring. Good thing the 5-9, 200-pound junior remained.

Defensive MVP: DL Carroll Phillips. Illinois’ “other” pass-rusher registered nine sacks and 20 tackles for loss en route to earning All Big Ten first-team accolades (media). Phillips, along with the headliner of the line, Dawuane Smoot, formed a deadly end tandem that provided one of the few bright spots on the team in 2016.

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Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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