Team shows promise after Zook’s second year

By Jason Grodsky

In year two of the Ron Zook era, the Illinois football program suffered through plenty of ups and downs.

Zook and the rest of the Illini coaching staff brought in a core group of young talent to get the program moving in the right direction following last season’s 2-9 (0-8 Big Ten) record.

But despite finishing with just two wins for the second straight season, the Illini took large steps in improving a team that has been in the basement of the Big Ten for the past few years.

Postseason Awards

Defensive Player of the Year:

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J Leman

The Illinois junior linebacker finished with a conference-leading 152 total tackles and 12.7 tackles per game, ranking second in the entire NCAA. Leman also posted 19 tackles for loss this season, which was second best in the Big Ten and 10th in the nation. For his outstanding performance this season Leman was named to the First-Team All-Big Ten by the media, becoming the first Illini to be a First-Team All-Big Ten selection since Steve Weatherford in 2004.

Offensive Player of the Year: Pierre Thomas

Thomas finished his career at Illinois ranked sixth on the school’s all-time rushing list with 2,545 yards after finishing his senior season with a team-high 755 yards rushing and five touchdowns. Altogether Thomas finished with 4,451 all-purpose yards, which are the second-most all-time in the school’s record books. For his efforts this season Thomas earned Big Ten honorable mention on its All-Conference teams.

Specialist of the Year:

Pierre Thomas

On just seven returns this season, Thomas compiled 223 kick return yards, setting the all-time kickoff return yardage record at Illinois. Thomas averaged a team high 31.9 yards per return and recorded a season high 75 yard return in the Illini’s final game at Northwestern to cap off a great career at Illinois.

Freshman of the Year:

Juice Williams

Williams became the first freshman to start at quarterback since Kurt Kittner in 1998 when he took over as the Illini’s starter against Iowa on Sept. 23 at Memorial Stadium. Williams finished his freshman season throwing for 1,489 yards on 103-261 passings and nine touchdowns.

Williams also rushed for 576 yards on 154 carries and two touchdowns, setting the single-season and career records for rushing by an Illinois quarterback.

Most Improved Player:

Derek Walker

The Illini sophomore proved to be a vital part of Illinois’ much improved defense. Walker improved on his 26 total tackles from last season by just three, but recorded a team high 5.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hurries.

Walker also finished third on the team with 8 tackles for loss.

Best Game: Illinois 23 – Michigan State 20, Sept. 30 at Michigan State

Zook and the Illini captured their first and only Big Ten win of the season in East Lansing behind a last-second field goal by junior Jason Reda. The Illini took a 20-10 lead into the fourth quarter before the Spartans tied the game. With 2:41 remaining in the game, the Illini took over the ball at their own 20-yard line and drove 58 yards to set up Reda’s 39-yard game-winning kick with six seconds remaining.

Honorable Mention: Illinois 10 – Ohio State 17, Nov. 4 at Illinois

The Illini held the No. 1-ranked undefeated 2006 Big Ten Champions to its lowest scoring, lowest total offense and fewest passing yards of the season when the Buckeyes visited Memorial Stadium. Trailing 17-0 going into the fourth quarter, Illinois pulled within a touchdown and gave itself a chance to tie the top-ranked Buckeyes in the final seconds, but fell just short of pulling off a miracle when Derrick McPhearson was ruled out of bounds with no time left on the clock.

Worst Game: Illinois 32 – Indiana 34, Oct. 7 at Illinois

Coming off its first Big Ten win in the Ron Zook Era, the Illini looked to be on their way to back-to-back conference wins for the first time since 2002, but the Illini blew an early 22-7 lead over the Hoosiers and fell victim to a last second field goal by Indiana kicker Austin Starr on Homecoming at Memorial Stadium.

Play of the Year: Game-winning field goal by Jason Reda with six seconds remaining at Michigan State

Reda’s kick gave Illinois its first Big Ten win since 2004 and its first road victory since 2002 at Northwestern. It was Reda’s first career game winning field goal as an Illini.