Illini's three-win season leaves big questions -

Illini's three-win season leaves big questions

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) -- If there's one thing Illinois can take from Saturday's season-ending shootout-gone-wrong at Memorial Stadium, it might be the final stats next to running back Mikel Leshoure's name.

Eleven carries, 184 yards, two rushing touchdowns and one receiving.

Asked about the sophomore's performance Saturday after a 53-52 loss to Fresno State, Illini head coach Ron Zook found a little optimism in a locker room where it was in short supply.

"I don't think there's any question he's going to have a great future," Zook said of the Champaign native.

Leshoure and sophomore back Jason Ford combined for 1,322 yards (6.45 a carry). Their performance gives Illinois (3-9) something to build on as it looks to improve on back-to-back losing seasons.

But the list of areas needing work is long, and there are no immediate answers for the big question Illini fans have been asking: What went wrong?

Fans might be tempted to start with the quarterback: Juice Williams is done after a disappointing senior season. And receiver Arrelious Benn

-- a good bet to leave early for the NFL and a likely high-round pick to boot -- finished with just 38 catches for 490 yards.-- 31 a game -- and the Illini picked off five passes.-- whom Athletic Director Ron Guenther guaranteed will be back next year in spite of his four losing seasons in five years at Illinois -- knows his defense is a problem.-- with only 1,632 yards, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions. And Benn -- while tantalizing Illini fans with plays like Saturday's 58-yard touchdown catch, in which he swiped the ball from the arms of a defensive back who never knew what hit him -- always seemed to be tightly covered, invisible to his quarterbacks or nursing an ankle injury.-- and Illinois is recruiting his brother, Trulon Henry, from junior college -- but draft experts expect him to leave and be a high-round pick.-- split along Williams and a stable of five backs that include Leshoure and Ford, -- was strong. Including Saturday's 331 against Fresno State, Illinois averaged 200 yards a game -- second best in the Big Ten.

But the most glaring problem was the one on display Saturday. The defense gave up 30 points and just over 400 yards a game, starting with a loss to a good-but-not-great Missouri team. The Tigers burned Illinois for 442 yards and 37 points a week before struggling to beat Bowling Green.

Opponents averaged six yards a play against Illinois. They threw the ball 373 times


"That goes back to attitude. You have to have a belief that when they are driving the football, they are not going to get in, that you are going to keep them out of there," Zook said. "Big plays are something that has plagued us a lot these past couple of years, and we have got to get it fixed."

The Illini are accustomed to strong defensive leadership. Two seasons ago, when they went to the Rose Bowl, it came from charismatic middle linebacker J Leman and last year from his replacement Brit Miller.

Illinois lost the guy who was supposed to pick up their slack, middle linebacker Martez Wilson, to a neck injury after the season opener.

But potential fixes could come on the sideline, too, where Zook has used co-defensive coordinators Curt Mallory and Dan Disch. When Guenther said Zook would be back, he also said changes would be made.

On offense, Williams and Benn started the year planning to put on a show. Instead, Williams wasn't even among the top 10 passers in the Big Ten

Benn hasn't said whether he'll be back

Draft expert and former Dallas Cowboys general manager Gil Brandt suggested Benn's problems, even beyond the injury, may have been beyond his control.

"Has he had anybody to throw the ball to him?" asked Brandt, who believes Benn will be a second-round pick. "I think that's what you look at."

Without passing fireworks, the Illini leaned on the run.

And the run game

Speculation and fan complaints about the passing trouble often focused on first-year offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, who replaced Mike Locksley at Illinois after years of running a high-powered attack at TCU.

But the offense started to click over the season's last few weeks, suggesting the Illini and their new coordinator were finding themselves on the same page. Saturday's 548 total yards against Fresno State was the Illini's third 500-plus yard day of the season.

"Any time you have 548 yards, you have to feel like it is a pretty good day, and we had a pretty good offensive day last week. We got better," Zook said of the season, "but the problem is we didn't get better fast enough, soon enough, early enough."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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