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As Illinois head football coach Ron Turner enters his seventh year at the helm of the program, he looks to continue one of the greatest turnarounds in college football taking an 0-11 team in 1997 to the Big Ten Championship in 2001. In addition to returning the program to national prominence, Turner has engineered an offense that continues to post numbers that break school records and have the Illini among the top scorers in the country year-in and year-out.
The 2002 offense set a new school mark for total offense, averaging 446.3 yards per game, which also ranked ninth nationally. Turner's high-powered offenses now rank in three of the schools top-5 spots. In each of the past two seasons, Turner-coached quarterbacks have led the conference in passing and the team has held the top spot as well. Last season, Illinois fans saw the compilation of probably the greatest wide receiving corp in school history. The Brandon Lloyd, Walter Young, Aaron Moorehead and Greg Lewis combination accounted for 57 touchdowns, and over 7,700 receiving yards in the past four years. At least three of the four rank on every career receiving record list.
Not to leave out the rushing game, the Turner era has produced three of the best running backs in school history. In 2002, senior Antoineo Harris capped his career with a 178-yard performance to break the single-season record. He also moved to second on the career list, behind only Robert Holcombe who set the career mark in 1997. The 2001 graduate, Rocky Harvey ranks fifth on that list. The championship run in 2001 marked many firsts for the Illini. It was the first outright Big Ten title for Illinois in 18 years and the team's first-ever berth in the Bowl Championship Series. The 10-win season was only the fourth for an Illini squad in its storied history. For his efforts, Turner was unanimously named the 2001 Big Ten Coach of the Year. He also was a finalist for the Eddie Robinson, Bear Bryant and the AFCA Coach of the Year awards. Illinois' No. 7 ranking in both the Associated Press and coaches poll at the end of the regular season was the highest for an Illini squad since 1990. The team finished No. 12 in both final polls.
Considered one of the game's great offensive minds, in 2001 Turner once again led his Illini to the highest scoring offense in school history, scoring 390 points for an average of 32.5 points per contestant. In 1999, Illinois scored 388 to break the previous scoring record set in 1902. In the last four seasons, each of the Illinois offenses has ranked in the school's top-10 most prolific, more than any other Illini head coach. Turner is also known for his development of quarterbacks and his most recent protege, Kurt Kittner benefited from his tutoring. Kittner was a Johnny Unitas Award finalist and a Davey OBrien Award semifinalist. He became only the sixth Illinois quarterback to pass for over 3,000 yards in a season and with the win over Northwestern in 2001, he became the winningest quarterback in school history (24-15). He set the school record for touchdown passes in a career with 70 and broke his own single-season record of 24 set in 1999 with 27 in 2001.
Kittner also became one in a long line of successful Turner-coached quarterbacks to head to the NFL. Others on that prestigious list are current San Francisco 49er starter Jeff Garcia, Erik Kramer, Jim Harbaugh, Steve Stenstrom, Sean Salisbury, Rodney Peete, Bucky Richardson, Sandy Schwab, John Congemi, and Dave Kreig.
During Turner's tenure, the Illini have been very successful in the NFL draft with at least one player selected in each of his five seasons. In 1998, Robert Holcombe was taken in the second round by the St. Louis Rams, while offensive lineman J.P. Machado was a sixth-round pick for the New York Jets in 1999. In both 2000 and 01, two players went in the April draft, placekicker Neil Rackers and linebacker Danny Clark in 2000 and offensive tackle Marques Sullivan and fullback Jamee
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