The Illinois Fighting Illini 2015 season officially came to an end this past Saturday in Chicago, IL after they suffered a loss to instate rival #16 Northwestern by a score of 24-14. The loss cemented a 5-7 year for Bill Cubit's football team, and despite not being guaranteed a bowl game this year, there are lots of things we can look back at and say that the organization is heading in the right direction. Note: 5-7 teams can still go to bowl games based on their school's Academic Progress Rate (APR). Illinois is currently ranked sixth highest in that department among 5-7 teams and is fifth in line to go to a bowl due to Missouri turning their bid down.
One week before the Illini opened the 2015 season with a home game against Kent State, Illini head coach Tim Beckman was fired by the AD Mike Thomas. The firing came after an investigation that involved players and Beckman, according to several players Beckman would force them to play no matter how they were feeling and under NCAA conduct, actions of such are not allowed; therefore he was relieved of his duties and assistant head coach Bill Cubit got the nod and would coach the Illini the rest of the year.
The season started out on a high note as the Illini won the first two games with complete blowout wins over Kent State and instate FCS team Western Illinois. The Illini didn’t allow a single touchdown during both the Kent State and Western Illinois game, something the the team hasn’t done since 1994. Was that a sign that the defense was going to be stellar throughout the rest of the season? Not really given the fact that they started the year playing one mid-major school and one FCS school, but eventually it played out to be the case.
Illinois would then drop the next game on the road to a very good North Carolina team, the Tar Heels won that game by a final of 48-14. Now many reading this may say, how can there defense be good if they gave up 48 points? Their defense that game played extremely well. The offensive production was were the flaws were and that’s where they remained for most of the year. Illinois ranked 89th in the country for total offensive production throughout 2015, the defense on the other hand nearly topped out the top 30 coming in ranked 32 in the nation for total team defense; see the problem now?
Following the Tar Heel loss, interim head coach Bill Cubit was eager to get back to winning football games and they did just that with a 27-25 win over the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders, the game was close and came down to the last second as the MTSU kicker missed a 40 yard field goal that would have given them the win. Following the MTSU win the Illini would only win two out of their last eight games, with wins coming against Nebraska (Geronimo Allison scored game-winning TD for Illinois as time expired) and a blowout victory over Purdue while dropping games to Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State, Minnesota and Northwestern.
Since the season has officially come to end, it’s time to recognize the players who played their best. On the offensive side the three players that deserve recognition for their play this season are Geronimo Allison, Wes Lunt and Ke’Shawn Vaughn.
Wideout, Geronimo Allison was ranked fifth amongst receivers in the Big Ten for receiving yards with 882. In 2015, the senior had three touchdowns one of them came on a 53 yard pass from junior QB Wes Lunt. Though Allison racked up the yards in 2015, he seemed to have a case of the butter fingers at times. He led the team in drops which is never good when your main objective is essentially to catch and run. Despite the dropped catches, the senior proved that he is capable of playing at the next level. What’s next? Perhaps the NFL but only time will tell.
Quarterback, Wes Lunt had an above average season this fall with the Illini, could he have done more? Probably, but he wasn’t the main problem for the Orange and Blue this season as the team in whole struggled on the offensive side. Lunt finished the 2015 season with 2,761 passing yards and 14 touchdowns through the air and one touchdown on the ground. The numbers are actually very solid given the fact that he broke his leg last season and missed almost every game in 2014. With that being said, the Illini didn’t really have an idea as to how he would bounce back from an injury so severe, fortunately he proved that he was capable of putting together another solid season in the NCAA.
The offensive awards conclude with running back, Ke’Shawn Vaughn. The freshman phenom had an unbelievable 2015, with Josh Ferguson the teams senior RB out for part of the year, Vaughn had to step up and perform and did just that. Vaughn rushed for 723 yards this season and ended the year with six total touchdowns. llinois fans this should bring excitement heading into the 2016 season.
On the defensive side of things, the three players that showed us everything they had this season are Mason Monheim, Taylor Barton and Clayton Fejedelem.
Senior linebacker Monheim had without question his best season in an Illini uniform. Monheim was all over the field whether it be intercepting passes, getting sacks or forcing fumbles; Monheim always found a way to get the job done. He ended 2015 with 98 total tackles, two interceptions one was returned for a touchdown) and onw sack.
Next up is junior defensive back Taylor Barton. Barton led the Illini defense this season with four interceptions. The four picks ranked fifth in the Big Ten just behind Nebraska’s Nate Gerry. Though Barton came away with four interceptions this season his performance overall on the defensive side of things could use some improvement. Look for Barton to have a big season in 2016 and hopefully he can rack up more tackles than he did this year while still intercepting passes.
And to wrap up the defensive side of things the final award goes to senior defensive back Clayton Fejedelem. Fejedelem racked up 140 tackles this season on defense along with two interceptions. He statistically had his best year as a member of the Orange and Blue and watch for him to perhaps make his way on to the field next year but this time you will be watching him on Sundays.