For rival Illinois, one last chance to put a positive note on a disappointing season

Jonah Rosenblum

A.J. Jenkins wanted more out of this season.

Following an inconsistent 2010 campaign in which the Fighting Illini dropped three of their last four regular-season games before defeating Baylor in the Texas Bowl, the senior wide receiver said he had no regrets about picking Illinois over football powerhouses like Florida, South Carolina and Florida State.

As he spoke about the Fighting Illini at Big Ten Media Days in late July, he seemed quite hopeful about what 2011 had in store for Illinois.

“God has a plan for me,” Jenkins said. “I’m good with my decision, look forward, hope that this year we’ll be one of those teams that’s on TV and win all the games.”

That’s how the season started out for Illinois. Its 38-35 win over Northwestern was broadcast for a national audience, and marked the fifth of six straight wins to start the season. The Fighting Illini’s hot start lifted them all the way to No. 16 in the national rankings.

Jenkins was an integral part of the Fighting Illini’s early success, recording 815 yards in their first six games of the season, including a career-high 268 receiving yards in Illinois’ Oct. 1 victory over NU.

Then the magic ran out for Jenkins and the Fighting Illini. Jenkins would record just 381 receiving yards over the rest of the season. Illinois fared even worse, dropping its last six games of the season. On Sunday, the school surprised no one when it announced that it had fired head coach Ron Zook.

The negative attention surrounding the Fighting Illini must have been particularly disappointing for a player like senior defensive back Tavon Wilson, who said in July that he was committed to erasing painful memories of the bad times Illinois had suffered prior to 2011.

“I feel more of a pressure on me because I’ve been around here and because I will not let the program go back to where it was,” Wilson said. “Some of the people on this team haven’t been through those tough times of missing a bowl game. We talk about (how) we can’t be the people that let the program back down.”

The Fighting Illini’s failure to maintain momentum from their hot start was exactly what Wilson was worried about.

“We just can’t get complacent,” Wilson said in July. “We can’t let the outside world get in our head. That’s what happened last year. We started out 5-2 and we almost missed a bowl game.”

Just like last year’s squad, it appears that this Illinois team will make a bowl game, although not necessarily a Big Ten bowl. The team will jostle with NU and Purdue for the final Big Ten bowl spots, a position it never should have been in after becoming bowl-eligible in the sixth week of the season.

Last season, it was the defense that killed the Fighting Illini, as they surrendered a staggering 157 points over the last four regular season games of their 2010 campaign.

“Our offense got better and better every game, the last five games we averaged 40 points, we only won one of those games, that’s not right. The defense, we need to be more consistent, stronger all game,” Wilson said in July. “We can’t let each other pat each other on our backs, (think) we can’t be touched, because obviously we can.”

This season, the defense stayed relatively steady, surrendering just 134 points over its last six games.

Wilson contributed 74 tackles, including five and a half tackles for loss, while teammates Johnathan Brown and Whitney Mercilus provided plenty of help. In many ways, this year’s defense reflected Wilson’s tenacity.

Yet, while Wilson and his teammates stayed consistent on the defensive end, the offense slumped to the finish line, scoring just a touchdown in three of its final six games, and recording just two touchdowns in each of its other three losses.

That’s not what anyone expected from an offense featuring one of the league’s better young quarterbacks in Nathan Scheelhaase, promising running back Jason Ford and Jenkins.

It’s been a season of broken dreams for the Fighting Illini, but a bowl win could help heal those wounds.

“Time heals all wounds,” defensive end Whitney Mercilus said in an Associated Press article. “It’s going to take a little bit of time to get over all this. Right now, we’re going to take things a little bit at a time, day by day, and then things will get better.”

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