Remembering the 2007 Fighting Illini
When Ron Zook came to Champaign from Florida, there was hope that he could bring some of the SEC flavors to the Big Ten and the Illini. Though his tenure with Illinois would not turn out well (34-51 in seven seasons), 2007 was one of the better seasons in recent program history. Zook took over for Ron Turner, who went 4-19 his last two seasons as head coach. The turnaround was not instantaneous; Zook went 4-19 in his first two seasons in Champaign.
Looking to improve from a 2-10 2006 season, Zook and his staff looked for improvement from quarterback Isiah “Juice” Williams and someone to replace the production of Pierre Thomas. The Illini also hoped for better luck; they lost four games by seven or fewer points in 2006. It all turned around the following season, including an upset of the number one team in the nation, Ohio State. Here’s an inside look at the 2007 Fighting Illini.
Rashard Mendenhall: The combination of Mendenhall and Williams was a formidable 1-2 punch in the backfield. The Skokie native showed flashes of being a great running back in 2006, averaging 8.2 yards per carry. 2007 was his breakout season, however. Mendenhall ran for a single-season school record of 1,681 yards (Mikel Leshoure broke the record in 2010 with 1,697 yards and 17 touchdowns — a school record. Mendenhall would cap off his 2007 season as the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.
Isiah “Juice” Williams: There were few players as dynamic in space as Williams. The quarterback, nicknamed “Juice” by his grandmother, was second on the team in rushing and scored 20 total touchdowns. Williams had one of his best games of the season against #1 Ohio State, throwing four touchdown passes. His best game, however, was against rival Northwestern. Juice had 356 total yards and three touchdowns.
Will Davis: The defense was already solid coming into the season; Will Davis made it better. The Maryland native was an absolute menace in 2007. Davis lived in the backfield with 12.5 tackles for loss, including 9.5 sacks. Davis’ best game came against Indiana, with seven tackles and four sacks. He was also named All-Big Ten Second Team.
Vontae Davis: The key to Illinois’ defense was the secondary. The reason brought a lot of pressure, and the secondary played a lot of man defense. The Illini defense left the cornerbacks on an island quite often. The secondary was more than up to the challenge. Cornerback Vontae Davis was the centerpiece of the reason. A two-time All-Big Ten performer, Davis was second on the team in interceptions and fourth in tackles.
9/29: v. #21 Penn State (W 27-20): Illinois returned home to face its first ranked opponent of the season, the Nittany Lions. Penn State outgained the Illini 427-336 but turned the football over four times. Illinois intercepted Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli three times, sacking him four times. This win was Illinois’ first against a ranked opponent since 2001 and a four-game win streak.
10/6: v. #25 Wisconsin (W 31-26): The irony to this game is that the Illini were favored to win. Illinois proved the oddsmakers right. The running game dominated with 289 rush yards; Rashard Mendenhall led the way with 160 yards rushing. Quarterback Juice Williams had 213 total yards and two touchdown passes. The defense picked the Badgers off twice and sacked Tyler Donovan twice.
11/10 @ #1 Ohio State (W 28-21): Illinois’ win against #1 Ohio State was a game of firsts. It was the first time Illinois had defeated the number-one team in the country since 1956. This was the first time the Illini defeated the number-one squad on the road. It was the Illini’s first win against the Buckeyes in three years and its last in the series. The defense forced three turnovers, and Juice Williams threw four touchdown passes in the Horseshoe.
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