Big Ten Previews, Pt. 3: Illinois Fighting Illini

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So long, Nathan Scheelhaase.

Four-year starters at any position are rare, much less at quarterback, where fate always seems to sideline a player with an injury at inopportune moments. Nevertheless, Scheelhaase walked onto the field as a freshman and went on to amass just shy of 10,000 yards of total offense in his career, including a 3,272-passing yard senior season which helped spearhead an offensive surge that saw the Illini improve from 119th in 2012 to 45th nationally in yards per play.

Without him, the Fighting Illini face several questions at the start of the 2014 season. With Scheelhaase gone, is head coach Tim Beckman feeling his seat get a little warmer in year three? Beckman took over after the 2011 squad went 6-7 . . .and posted records of 2-10 and 4-8. On-the-field results aside, Beckman hasn’t exactly endeared himself to the Illini fanbase by attempting to poach potential Penn State transfers, nearly coming to blows with offensive coordinator Bill Cubit on the sidelines of the Ohio State game, to a sideline violation against Northwestern in 2012, and getting caught on camera taking a dip of chewing tobacco pre-game against Wisconsin. With all those issues, it’s a wonder he’s still around. (If you want to chew tobacco on your own time, go for it, but one would assume a FBS-level head coach would be aware that the penalty for getting caught doing so at a game is disqualification.) Nevertheless, athletic director Mike Thomas guaranteed Beckman’s employment for at least one more season, citing that Beckman’s predecessor had a rocky start before making the 2008 Rose Bowl in his third season. Whether Beckman and Co. can post a similar turnaround remains to be seen.

2013 RECAP
When the dust settled, this was a team with a dangerous offense that occasionally couldn’t score and a woeful defense that occasionally made a stop. Had the two gotten on the same page more often, 2013 could have been a different season; however, Illinois only really looked like a complete team just once in 2013, in a 45-17 upset of Cincinnati.

Average score, in four wins: Illinois 39.3, Opponent 20.3
Average score, in eight losses: Opponent 43, Illinois 24.9

After Cincinnati, the Illini couldn’t take advantage of a hobbled Husker team, losing 39-19. Wisconsin hammered the Illini for 56 points, and the previously hapless Michigan State Spartans found their offensive feet against Illinois in a 42-3 rout. Clock mismanagement and offensive ineptitude doomed the Illini against Penn State. The defense collapsed in back-to-back games against Indiana and Ohio State, surrendering 112 points. While the Illini were able to steal a 20-16 win against Purdue (the conference’s worst team), they were outlasted by in-state rival Northwestern 37-34 and ended 4-8.

With Scheelhaase gone, what does the Illinois offense look like in 2014?

ILLINOIS OFFENSE
Scheelhaase’s departure leaves a void that senior Riley O’Toole, sophomore Aaron Bailey, and sophomore and Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt will battle to fill. Lunt, the former Mike Gundy disciple, is probably best suited to run Cubit’s up-tempo, pass-happy attack, and he brings experience, having played in seven games at Oklahoma State before missing the rest of the season to injury. As a freshman at Oklahoma State, Lunt completed 61.8% of his passes for 1,108 yards (and an impressive 8.5 yards per attempt) for six touchdowns, but also seven interceptions. Lunt might find Big Ten defenses slightly less pliable than those of the Big 12, but regardless, whoever starts will at least hopefully match Scheelhaase’s modest 7.6 yards per attempt while improving upon his thirteen interceptions.

And unfortunately, they’ll lack the quartet of senior receivers leaned upon by Scheelhaase in the 2013 campaign, who accounted for 1,978 of Scheelhaase’s yards. Moving up are senior Martize Barr and juco transfer Geronimo Allison. Fans are bullish on incoming freshman Mike Dudek, and former walk-on Pete Bonahoom turned heads in the spring game with a seven-catch, 95-yard performance.

On a positive note for the Illini, they return two talented running backs, junior Josh Ferguson and senior Donovonn Young, who combined for 1,155 yards and ten touchdowns in 2013, while the former, Swiss army knife Ferguson, averaged 5.52 yards per carry and also caught 50 passes for 535 yards (Scheelhaase was fond of the checkdown). Though Illinois’ yardage totals suggest that they lean heavily on the pass, I was surprised to discover that Cubit was actually pretty balanced in his playcalling (455 passes to 411 rushes). Had they not been playing from behind so often they might’ve favored the run (when trailing, 296 passes to 223 rushes), and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to see the Illini work the ground game a bit harder in 2014, at least early on as a new quarterback and receivers get broken in.

ILLINOIS DEFENSE
Oof. This was not a good defense. Opposing quarterbacks carved up the Illini secondary to the tune of 8.2 yards per attempt and 25 touchdowns (while notching just three interceptions, dead last in the Big Ten). In the month of October the Illini allowed 10.2 yards per attempt (yep, a first down per pass), with an average passer rating of 204.7 (!!!). And the opponents? Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Michigan State, teams definitely not known for their blistering passing attacks.

See, it isn’t just about yards. The Illini only allowed totals of 186, 189, and 208 yards in those three games, which look like respectable totals. What killed the Illini was the fact that when the opponent needed to throw, they did so with ease.

Now, the Illini front seven might get off a bit easier if they were stuffing the run and forcing opponents to pass. But given the small number of pass attempts the Illini faced, opponents only threw when they needed to. Consider this: besides games against Southern Illinois (312 yards), Washington (342), and Northwestern (414), teams were not airing it out (for my purposes, “airing it out” constitutes over 30 pass attempts). For the most part, teams were running straight at and over the Illinois defense. Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah: 225 yards (11.25 yards per carry). Indiana’s Tevin Coleman and Stephen Houston: 365 yards (11.4 yards per carry).  Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller: 430 yards (10.8 yards per carry).

(These numbers are not good.)

Okay, I’ve spent plenty of time maligning the Illini defense. What does their future hold? Well, for starters, linebacker (and leading tackler) Jonathan Brown is gone. Replacing him are senior Houston Bates and sophomore T.J. Neal, on whom coaches were bullish in the spring. Up front, defensive linemen Kenny Nelson and Paul James III each recorded a pair of sacks in the spring game, a welcome sight for the Illini, which were next-to-last in the Big Ten in sacks in 2013.

As for the secondary, the outlook is either rosy or bleak depending on how you feel about experience. 2013’s unit was abysmal but young, and they all return. They definitely need to improve on their 2013 total of just three interceptions ( junior V’Angelo Bentley took a pick 89 yards for a touchdown in the spring game, for whatever that’s worth). Whether success in the spring game will translate to success in the fall is always a crapshoot, but frankly it would be hard for them to be much worse.

ILLINOIS SPECIAL TEAMS
The Illini retain the services of placekicker Taylor Zalewski, who connected on 12 of 17 field goals in 2013, and also of punter Justin DeVernois, who was reliable enough when it came to booting the ball forty-ish yards a few times per game.

On the return front, Bentley did most of the honors and while 21.4 yards per kickoff return is nothing special, 16 yards per punt return is pretty darn nice, and Bentley was able to take in both a punt and a kickoff in for touchdowns in 2013.

2014 SCHEDULE
illinois sag
Michigan State and Indiana rotate off, but Iowa and Minnesota rotate on. That’s a net win for the Illini, I’d say, as no young backfield would want to face that Spartan defense and have to worry about outscoring that Hoosier offense. That being said, the schedule is still loaded. After creampuff games against Youngstown State and Western Kentucky, the Illini visit Washington in Seattle. They get a break against Texas State before facing Nebraska in Lincoln (for the second year in a row, I bet they’re really loving the Big Ten scheduling committee), and also visit Wisconsin and Ohio State. Tack on a trip to in-state rival Northwestern and that’s a brutal road slate. For home games, the Illini will face Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa, and Penn State.

I can’t say with any confidence that this will be an improved team in 2014. While the schedule is a smidge easier, the dropoff in the backfield doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence. 5-7 might be the best outcome the Illini could hope for unless they can steal an upset win from one of the conference’s middle- or upper-tier teams.

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