Season recaps continue today with looks at Illinois and Northwestern...
Illinois came into the season on a high in football and coming off a downer in basketball. They reversed that this year. The football team was not expected to repeat its Rose Bowl season of 2007, but nor were they expected to slide back below .500. Yet that's what happened. Sitting on 5-4, and still in contention for a good bowl bid amid a packed conference middle class, Ron Zook's team tanked. Three straight losses included one to Western Michigan (the same team who ruined Iowa's bowl hopes last year) and a 27-10 defeat to in-state rival Northwestern in the finale. Zook will ultimately be measured by the recruits he's brought in, who are just now starting to become the cornerstone of the program, but either way, '08 goes in the books as a disappointment.
Basketball brought better fortunes. With Mike Davis relentlessly hitting the boards, Bruce Weber's team nailed Missouri back in December, a clear signal that this was a program back on the upswing. The Illini opened the conference schedule by winning at Purdue in overtime and commenced to stay in the running for the league championship all year, before a home loss to Michigan State in early March ended their hopes. A first-round NCAA loss to Western Kentucky was a disappointing finish, but it should not overshadow the success the season was. Weber did a fine coaching job, the best in the Big Ten this year.
It was a good year for a school not renowned for its athletic prowess. Pat Fitzgerald's football team faced a key crossroads year, as they continued to try and rebuild in the aftermath of Randy Walker's death. The crossed the threshold in splendid fashion, racking up nine wins, including victories in Iowa City, Minneapolis and Ann Arbor. Then they gave highly touted Missouri a noble run for their money in the Alamo Bowl before losing 30-23.
The basketball team made it to the NIT behind Kevin Coble and Craig Moore. They beat Florida State early on, and mixed in a big road win at Michigan State (albeit a Raymar Morgnan-less Spartan squad). After an 0-4 conference start, they rallied to win eight of their last fourteen regular season games before bowing out in the conference tournament. One only wonders what might have happened if they had gotten more out of sophomore Michael Thompson.