Today, Illinois Fighting Illini football is about to embark on its fifth season in an established Lovie Smith coaching regime, with experienced players throughout the roster and expectations of success among the fans. To properly gauge our expectations, it’s often helpful to look into the past and see how similar circumstances played out in prior years.
One such time in recent Illini football history was exactly one decade ago in the 2010 season. Then, like now, an established coaching regime was looking to build on its past and create a consistently successful program.
That season saw Head Coach Ron Zook in his sixth season at the helm of a program that was only three years removed from a Rose Bowl appearance following the 2007 campaign. But the intervening years were disappointing (5-7 in 2008 and 3-9 in 2009), and with the good will from the Rose Bowl now gone, Zook was coaching with his job on the line.
Going into the season opener in the Arch Rivalry Series against the Missouri Tigers, the 2010 roster was filled with experienced and talented athletes, but the departure of incumbent quarterback Jacob Charest had forced an unknown redshirt freshman, Nathan Scheelhaase, under center for his first-career start.
Surrounding Scheelhaase was a stable of NFL-caliber talent on offense, including Mikel Leshoure and A.J. Jenkins, as well as a stacked offensive line including Jeff Allen, Hugh Thornton, and Graham Pocic. On defense, virtually every Illini starter would eventually be drafted or see time in the NFL, owing both to their talent and Zook’s deep connections to the professional game. The defensive line was anchored by Corey Liuget, Justin Staples, and Michael Buchanan, while former five-star recruit Martez Wilson was now finally healthy and led the linebacking corps along with Ian Thomas and Trulon Henry. The defensive backfield featured Steve Hull and Tavon Wilson at safety and Travon Bellamy at cornerback.
Opposing the Illini was a Missouri Tigers program led by veteran Head Coach Gary Pinkel in his tenth season, and with junior Blaine Gabbert at quarterback. The team also featured Aldon Smith and Michael Sam on the defensive line.
The game began with a quick three-and-out by Missouri, followed by a long Illini drive that led to a Derek Dimke field goal to give the Illini the lead. Dimke, then a junior, would go on to finish his career as the most accurate kicker in Illini history.
Both offenses sputtered in the early going, with Missouri missing a field goal and Scheelhaase having his first interception at the beginning of the second quarter, which was followed by a Tigers field goal to tie the game up. Scheelhaase then took control again and built off a long 42-yard Mikel Leshoure run to set up his first passing touchdown to A.J. Jenkins, which gave Illinois a 10-3 lead. Another defensive stop by the Illini and a short drive set up Dimke for a 52-yard field goal, which sailed through the uprights and gave Illinois a two-score lead heading into halftime.
Missouri would wake up after halftime, as Gabbert hit T.J. Moe for his first passing touchdown of the game in their first possession. Both teams exchanged punts until the Tigers retook the lead shortly into the fourth quarter on a short Blaine Gabbert pass to Michael Egnew, putting Mizzou ahead 17-13. Missouri would extend its lead by three after Scheelhaase had his second interception of the day. Illinois’ subsequent drive would end in Scheelhaase’s third interception on the afternoon, and Missouri would push their lead to eventual final score of 23-13 with a late game field goal.
The only video I could find of this game is contained within the highlight reels below.
Watching the videos, I’m mostly struck at how tenacious the defense played especially in the early going. On offense, it’s fascinating to watch Illinois play in Paul Petrino’s pro-style system again, and seeing Jay Prosch make massive blocks as one of Illinois’ last true fullbacks is always entertaining.
So, let’s just put the talent to work this season and be competitive. It’s not too much to ask for, right?