Sure, Saturday was crazy, but just wait ’til next year

By Kevin Olsen

So it finally happened. Illinois proved all doubters wrong and pulled off one of the biggest victories in school history. I thought going into the game that Illinois definitely had a chance to knock off Ohio State with all of its offensive firepower, but I was never expecting the dominating performance it gave.

And here is where I admit I have been wrong in the past. Ron Zook definitely taught me that, yes, he can coach a talented football team. But even more surprising to me was the way that Juice Williams played. He passed the ball well and ran with a purpose, and most importantly, he was mistake-free.

That game officially made me a believer of Juice and Zook.

But what I really took away from that game was the promise of the future. Now that the “Mendenhall for Heisman” campaign has ended, it is time to start chanting for Mendenhall to come back for one more year.

I think Saturday’s victory might have been all it takes to get our superstar running back to return for one more season (and then the Heisman campaign can begin for real).

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How can Mendenhall not come back for another year, though? Sure, the temptation of an early-round draft selection and millions of dollars sounds nice, but next year could really be something special after seeing how the Illini played against the No. 1 team in the country. They beat Ohio State, dominating the last three quarters of the game, and Mendenhall and Arrelious Benn were hardly a factor. Just imagine what could happen when those two are on and Juice plays the way he did Saturday. This team might be scary good next year.

Benn only had one catch for seven yards and Mendenhall ran for just 88 yards on 26 carries, with the bulk of those yards coming on a few long runs. This team is just getting more and more weapons to turn to – like Dufrene’s outburst last week and Juice taking over the reins of the offense.

All year I have heard how good the team will be next season and that Juice will be even better, but I didn’t believe he was making enough progress until I saw him play last week. He wasn’t throwing his usual lasers; he was actually lofting passes on his touchdown throws. He ran the offense in the fourth quarter like a seasoned pro and ran out the clock against the No. 1 defense in the country.

And Zook has another strong recruiting class for next season that may even be better all around then this year’s top-heavy class that included Benn and Martez Wilson. Additionally, all of the freshmen and sophomores on this year’s team will be a year older and much improved.

The defense has proved all year it can hang with any team in the country and it should be just as strong next year. Sure, the Illini are losing Butkus semifinalist J Leman, among other seniors, but they have great depth with the defensive front four. We will get to see all-world athlete Martez Wilson start at linebacker and, of course, Vontae Davis will be back in a young secondary.

What really makes me excited is the offense next year. Benn is only a freshman and he is far and away the best receiver on the team as well as a dynamic kick returner. It is scary to think how good he will be next season, especially if Juice can prove he can be a consistent quarterback and play like he did against Ohio State.

I truly think, and even in an unbiased way, that Mendenhall is going to be a preseason front-runner in the Heisman race if he stays for his final year of eligibility and players like Darren McFadden, Steve Slaton and Ray Rice go pro. He really is that good.

While I don’t think he has a prayer to win a Heisman while a healthy Tim Tebow is in college, expect a lot of national coverage for No. 5 on the Illini. I can honestly see a preseason top-15 ranking for our Illini next season, and if you thought this season was fun, just wait until next year.

They will be competing for at least a Big Ten title.

Kevin Olsen is a senior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]