College football countdown: No. 15 Illinois

Monday, July 24th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Illinois already has had unlucky breaks

It wasn't that long ago that Illinois was struggling to beat anybody at all.

So last season's break into the Top 25, topped by a 63-21 smashing of Virginia in the Bowl, was the kind of success that could go the Fighting Illini's heads.

But a break of a different sort might sober up the Illini and the team's expectations this season.

Top receiver Brandon Lloyd, a preseason All-Big Ten choice, broke his leg in a freak accident as he was jogging to catch up with friends in a parking lot in July. Add that to guard Ray Redziniak's broken leg from spring, and the Illini have eight returning offensive starters instead of 10.

Redziniak could be back in September; Lloyd, who caught 30 passes for 511 yards as a freshman, is out for the season.

``Right now, we're a little shaky,'' said redshirt freshman Eric McGoey, one of the corps of receivers who must make up for Lloyd's absence.

McGoey, sophomore split end Aaron Moorehead and sophomore split end Dwayne Smith are now veteran leaders among Illinois pass catchers.

Coach Ron Turner admits his team will miss Lloyd, ``because he is such a big-play guy.'' But with the arm of quarterback Kurt Kittner, a 6-3, 205-pound junior, Illinois knows it still has a big-play offense.

Kittner led an attack that produced 388 points last season – most in school history – and threw 24 touchdown passes, also a school record.

The Illini also have balance, thanks to a veteran and large offensive line. Running back Rock Harvey gets to run behind five returning starters once Redziniak returns. Harvey rushed for 774 yards last season.

The defense has six starters back, and defensive coordinator Tim Kish calls it ``definitely the quickest group we've had'' in the four seasons of Turner's regime.

Illinois will be tested early, meeting Michigan on Sept. 23 in a nationally televised night game in Champaign.

Illini fans feel the electricity. This game could be the team's first sellout in five years.

``That could be two Top 10 teams,'' Moorehead said. ``And the winner could go on to win the Big Ten.''

That's a pretty big dream for the Illini.

Illinois Scheduke- Sept 2 Middle Tenn. State; Sept 9 at San Diego State; Sept 16 California; Sept 23 Michigan; Sept 30 at Minnesota; Oct 14 Iowa; Oct 21 at Penn State; Oct 28 at Michigan State; Nov 4 Indiana; Nov 11 Ohio State; Nov 18 at Northwestern

Illinois Fighting Illini Capsule

COACH: Ron Turner (11-23 in three years at Illinois; 18-27 in four years overall).

LAST YEAR: 8-4 (beat Virginia in Bowl).

OUT: Kicker Neil Rackers (44 of 44 on extra points and 20 of 26 on field goals), replaced by junior Steve Fitts.

IN: Confidence in Turner's program after 0-11 and 3-8 records in his first two seasons. The Illini scored 388 points last year, most in school history.

BIG PLUS: Nine starters returning on offense, not including injured Brandon Lloyd; and a starting defense that includes 10 seniors or juniors gives the Illini a veteran presence.

BIG MINUS: Preseason All-Big Ten receiver Brandon Lloyd broke his leg in a freak accident in July and is out for the season.

NATIONAL TITLE IF: Illinois isn't caught by revenge-minded victims of '99, including Michigan and Ohio State.

BOTTOM LINE: Illinois can contend among Big Ten elite. But the Illini won't be overlooked by every Big Ten opponent as in the past. Another 8-4 would be a success.

Top 25 So Far

25. Clemson
24. Mississippi
23. So. Miss.
22. Utah
21. Texas A&M
20. Penn State
19. Tennessee
18. Colorado
17. Oklahoma
16. Purdue
15. Illinois