Shoe never fit for Fighting Illini in 2009

It was a muggy August day, and the Illinois football team hadn’t yet left for preseason Camp Rantoul.

Eddie McGee leaned up against the fence outside Memorial Stadium after practice and smiled.

“I would probably say our swag and our intensity are at about a thousand. We’re out here pumpin’ it hard. Everybody’s excited, can’t wait for the season to start, everybody’s excited for camp,” McGee said.

“Everybody’s got that good, chipper feeling.”

Oh, how nine losses in a 12-game season can change the demeanor of a team.

It wasn’t long ago that the Illini had Rose Bowl dreams, yearning to write off a 5-7 season in 2008 as a fluke.

With an offense that was returning a second-team All-Big Ten quarterback and a receiver pegged as a first-round NFL draft pick, the Illini looked poised to best last season’s 5,266 yards, good for second in the Big Ten.

The only major shift for the offense came with new coordinator Mike Schultz, who came to Champaign after helping TCU set school records in points (420) and touchdowns (54).

The Illini weren’t worried about the transition.

“Since he came in, it’s been a smooth transition,” quarterback Juice Williams said in early August.

“He’s not going to take losing as an option.”

But Illinois sputtered out of the gates, compiling only nine touchdowns in its first six games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents.

And the Illini did lose — in many different ways.

First they said they weren’t playing with enough focus in a season-opening 37-9 loss to Missouri.

“We weren’t ready to play today,” Ron Zook said.

Then, against Ohio State, they just didn’t execute with precision in a 30-0 defeat.

“We’re confident in our abilities,” defensive tackle Josh Brent said. “Guys have some major corrections to make.”

Finally, following four more losses against Penn State, Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue, Illinois just ran out of answers.

McGee could only say one thing about what his team could do.

“Stay optimistic,” he said shortly, his “swag” looking as if it was at about zero.

The Illini finally lived up to their preseason billing, winning their next two games by scoring a combined 73 points against Michigan and Minnesota, 14 more than they’d scored in the previous four games.

But the two wins proved little more than a mirage, as their bowl contention was quickly eliminated with a heartbreaking loss to Northwestern, in which the Illini felt they were slighted by a last-minute call.

Even with a heralded quarterback in Williams, who set the school record for career total offense this season, and a heralded group of receivers, who were ranked the No. 2 unit at their position by College Football News during the preseason, the Illini failed to make a bowl game for the second straight season.

Illinois then fell to a Cincinnati team with national championship hopes and saved its most heartbreaking loss for the final game.

Just last Saturday against the Fresno State Bulldogs, the Illini lost by one point after an opposing offensive lineman caught a deflected pass and ran in a two-point conversion with just two seconds left.

“We got better,” a deflated Zook said. “The problem is, we didn’t get better enough sooner enough, fast enough.”

The Illini will simply have to hope that improvement carries over to next season, when they will try to gain some of their “swag” back.