Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, December 14, 2015

Illinois? season took a bizarre twist before the first kickoff, as Tim Beckman was fired a week before the opener amid allegations he had mistreated players. The school quickly turned to sage offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who did a good job keeping the program on track.

Alas, he was unable to get the Fighting Illini back to a bowl game after making it in 2014.

There were issues on both sides of the ball. The offense struggled to run the ball, ranking last in the Big Ten in rushing (129.3 ypg) with only 13 TDs on the ground. That short-circuited an attack that ranked No. 12 in scoring (22.7 ppg) and missed star WR Mikey Dudek, who missed all season with a knee injury suffered in the spring. The defense made some big strides from 2014, thanks to the arrival of co-defensive coordinator/d-line coach Mike Phair. The rushing defense went from allowing 239.2 yards to 166.4 with studs like Jihad Ward and Dawuane Smoot anchoring the front. And the total defense went from 456.4 to 350.8 with linebackers Mason Monheim and T.J Neal excelling. Still, it wasn?t enough to get Illinois to the postseason.

Record: 5-7 overall (2-6 Big Ten/T5th West)

Bowl: none

High point: It was a comeback for the ages. That?s what some were calling Illinois? 14-13 win vs. Nebraska on Oct. 3. The Illini trailed, 13-0, in the fourth quarter and looked doomed but completed a stunning reversal to pullout the win capped by a 1-yard TD throw from Wes Lunt to Geronimo Allison with 10 seconds left in the game. Nebraska looked primed to ice the game but made some inexplicable decisions and allowed the Illini to have the ball back. Big mistake. The Illini moved 72 yards in six plays in only 41 seconds. The victory pushed Illinois to 4-1 and had the team dreaming great possibilities.

Low point: A 39-0 loss at Penn State on Oct. 31 was a bummer, and it extended a losing streak to three games after a 4-1 start. But let?s go with a 24-14 season-ending loss to Northwestern in Chicago?s Soldier Field in an Illinois ?home? game. The Illini needed to win go finish 6-6 and guarantee a second bowl trip in a row. It didn?t happen. Prior to the game, the school announced interim coach Bill Cubit had agreed to a two-year deal. The move provided no spark.

Offensive MVP: RB Josh Ferguson. Mr. Versatile. The senior made this offense go, running 129 times for 708 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught 37 passes for 280 yards and two TDs. Ferguson missed three games in a row in October. And, Illinois lost all three. Also have to mention WR Geronimo Allison, who made 65 receptions for 882 yards and three scores.

Defensive MVP: S Clayton Fejedelem. The senior was a second-team All-Big Ten pick by the media after pacing the conference with 140 tackles (11.7 pg). That was 23 more than the No. 2 tackler in the league. Not bad for a guy who began his career at NAIA St. Xavier before transferring.


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