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Preview Q&A: Illinois

To give us better and more biased perspective on the season opener in St. Louis, we've enlisted the help of Steve from The Chief Perspective for a closer look at the Illinois Fighting Illini in 2008.

RMN: Mizzou fans are extremely familiar with what happened in Illinois' season opener and its season finale. Give us a brief rundown of the highs and lows of what happened in between during the 2007 season.

I think that everyone believed Illinois would go no better than .500 last year, but as Zook had correctly predicted three years ago:

* year one - we'll lose by a lot
* year two - we'll lose by a little.
* year three - we'll win by a little.

That ended up being the case for this last year that Illinois was able to hold leads or stay close and finish them off. 

The high for the year had to be the Ohio State game.  Illinois almost pulled it off at home the year before, so they had the taste of victory going into Ohio State in 2007.  I think Ohio State believed that if they could focus stopping Mendenhall, they'd win they didn't expect Juice to play so well. It created problems for their defense to have to check whether Juice kept it or Walter is running with it.

However, I would venture to say the best game may have been the Wisconsin game at home.  They were ranked 5th and it was a close game until the finished.  When we won against them, I think it helped change the mindset that Illinois could play with the big boys.

The low point had to be the Rose Bowl.  According to Zook, all the practices except for the one right before the game were more than he expected, but the game ended up having some "game changer" plays that just deflated the guys quickly. 

RMN: With Mendenhall gone, does the story of Illinois' season become the play of Juice Williams? How comfortable are Illini coaches/fans with his development?

It's always about the QB regardles of the situation in my mind.  Juice should step up his play this year, but he's getting even better talent to throw to this year, which I think will help him tremendously.  While Juice will hopefully have a breakout year, the ability for Eddie McGee to step in (like he did vs. Mizzou last year) makes it less stressful a situation.

However, I think the story will end up being the defense.  While they are losing some key seniors, the incoming freshmen and returning players are creating a monsterous defensive line that will terrorize teams this year.

During the spring game, people noticed that the offense wasn't that productive, but many thought it could be the strength of the defense that caused that problem.

RMN: How is the Illinois defense shaping up for next year after the loss of the J Leman as the unit's heart and soul? What are some defensive names other than Vontae Davis that Mizzou fans should know?

Like mentioned before, the defense will be better than ever, even with J Leman gone.  J was a great player, but more a leader of the team.  His replacement have better speed than J and will be backed by veterans.  Look out for Britt Miller to step up, as  with Martez Wilson, who is just a beast with so much potential.  The biggest open issue on defense is the safety/cb position, but there is a lot of talent that will hopefully step up.

RMN: At this point, has Ron Zook answered all doubters within Illinois circles?

I think this is really the year that Zook answers all the doubters.  Last year's result helped put people's concerns on hold for Zook, but I think fans want to see consistency and a bowl win to really allow Zook to have breathing room.  He doesn't need to get back to the Rose Bowl, but a New Year's Day bowl at a minimum would be great.  This year, we play Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin all on the road, which are very difficult to win.

RMN: After the season Illinois had last year, how do you think the program will handle the burden of higher expectations? What constitutes a successful season - 8 wins? 10 wins?

Last year, I thought he'd go 5-7 or even 6-6, but he took a couple of games that he should of and won even more from the momentum.  Teams will be keyed up on him this year, but I think the team's mindset is a lot better. Looking at this year's schedule, I'm guess at least 9 wins. 

6. Finish the following phrases:

- Mizzou will win if: they can beat Illinois defensive corners.
- Illinois will win if: they can continue to balance Juice and a running combo to confuse the defense.  Also, if the can win the turnover game. (I think it was -5 last year?)
7. Give us an extremely premature score for the Mizzou/Illinois game, and give us your prediction for the best and worse-case scenarios (including records) for Illinois in 2008.
My guess will be 30-24 Illinois, however, it'll be +/- 7 overall.  This will be a great game and much more evenly matched.  I think the story will be Mizzou offense vs. an improved Illini defense.  If Illinois wins, it helps jump them into the national championship race and help them gain momentum going into penn state and michigan.  If they lose, I still think they will do well, but won't take PS and MICH. 

Worse case happened last year, Juice is pulled out (this time for performance) and Eddie McGee steps in.  We lose by two touchdowns.

Best case, Illinois wins the turn over race, picks off Mizzou twice and Chase Daniel is shaken up by it.

Stay tuned Friday for community projections on the game and on Illinois' season.