Season in review: Illinois

Oct 22, 2016; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith on the sideline in the first half against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Team: Illinois

Record: 3-9 (2-7 B1G)

Lovie Smith wasn’t able to magically change the fortunes of the program overnight. Despite only three wins in 2016, Smith appears to be doing some good things on the recruiting path and the future could be much brighter in Champaign.

High point of the season: Taking down Michigan State

There weren’t many moments to celebrate for the Illini, so a 31-27 home win over the Spartans was easily the peak this past season.

It was a back-and-forth contest that saw the Illini score with less than two minutes left in the game to take a late lead and come up with a fourth down stop in the closing seconds to secure a win. The victory over Michigan State was the second in conference play and the final win of the year for Illinois.

Running back Kendrick Foster had a career day, rushing for 146 yards and two TDs on 17 carries against the Spartans defense.

Low point of the season: An embarrassing performance in a 28-0 loss to Iowa

Iowa turned out to be a pretty solid team by the end of the year, so the loss alone wasn’t exactly devastating. Illinois’ performance, however, was abysmal.

The Illini punted the ball 10 times, had six drives end after a three-and-out and had two turnovers. They racked up just 198 yards of total offense in the shutout loss to the Hawkeyes.

It should also be noted that Illinois didn’t kickoff a single time in the contest. Kirk Ferentz opted to kick the ball to start both halves in order to have the wind at his team’s back. With the Illini failing to score, the placekicker just stood on the sideline all afternoon.

Most meaningful play: Kendrick Foster’s 19-yard TD run vs. MSU

With just over two minutes left in the first half, Illinois put together it’s best drive of the day, going 73 yards on 11 plays to take a 7-6 lead into the locker room. The drive was capped by Foster’s 19-yard TD run as he powered through a pair of defenders to reach the goal line:

This wasn’t Foster’s best run of the season – it wasn’t even the best play of the afternoon for him – but it was the most important. Finding the end zone right before the half was a major confidence-builder and was the spark Illinois needed to knock off Michigan State.

Team MVP: Carroll Phillips, DE

Carroll Phillips had as good of a season as any defensive lineman in the B1G. Thanks to Illinois’ 3-9 record – and poor defensive numbers – he was often overlooked as one of the top defensive ends in the B1G.

Phillips was among the B1G leaders in tackles for loss (20) and sacks (9), ranked No. 2 and No. 4 in the conference in those categories respectively. He also forced a fumble and totaled 56 tackles in his final season.

All year, Phillips was a tough assignment for offensive lineman and made his presence well-known in opposing backfields.

Overall grade: C-

Illinois had a lot of injury issues this year, not to mention the personnel and scheming changes. The Illini probably could have – maybe should have – won a few more games this year. But what did you expect?

This was a year designated for rebuilding a program in Champaign. That’s what happened in 2016.

REFERENCES

Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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