After Tim Beckman's first disastrous season in Champaign last year, it seemed that every game on the 2013 slate was going to be a tough test for his Fighting Illini. And though they're only two games in, they've passed each test with flying colors.
Now here comes the first really big one.
Week 2's big 45-17 win over Cincinnati was no doubt impressive. A second straight explosion from quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and coordinator Bill Cubit's revamped offense, a dominant defensive performance and a blowout win over a Cincinnati team that found the end zone six times in its season-opener all contributed to the first win over a team from an automatic-qualifying conference in the Beckman Era.
But Saturday brings something new. The Illini will host Washington — currently ranked No. 19 in the country — at Soldier Field. If Cincinnati came into Champaign as a scary opponent for the Illini, the Huskies would be downright terrifying. They've played just one game, but it was a dominating one, a statement 38-6 victory in its season-opener against Boise State.
But, for the first time in at least a calendar year, there's positive excitement surrounding this Illinois team.
"Of course, I'm sure that after this win there's more (excitement about the team). But we are very, very focused on what we need to accomplish and how we need to get better," Beckman said Monday. "This football team is really driven in that direction, and I can say it's from the senior class down to the freshmen. They're all very aware of what we have and how we need to get better."
Beckman credited the eye-opening performance against Cincinnati to his team's preparation, and it'll need to prepare quite well if it wants to keep the newfound excitement going. Starting with Washington on Saturday, three of the Illini's next four games come against teams currently ranked in the AP poll, and just one of those three games will take place in Champaign.
For Washington, in particular, that preparation revolves around getting ready for a fast-paced, high-flying offense that runs a lot of plays in a short amount of time, one that racked up an incredible 592 yards of offense against a Boise State team that didn't have a lot of experience in getting dominated.
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"I think that says a lot about them, any time you have a team that goes out there and kind of dominates Boise State like that," Scheelhaase said. "That really doesn't happen too much. You look at Boise State over the last four or five years, it doesn't happen a lot. And they were able to do that, so that speaks a lot about them. They're definitely an athletic, aggressive defense. They play very sound across the board. It'll definitely be the biggest challenge we've seen from a defense this year."
"They were playing extremely fast," defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "Last year, I know there was a lot of talk that they would change some things up, and true to form they did. They played extremely fast against Boise, and we expect them to try to play fast in their second game."
But even with tough tasks ahead of them, celebrating its back-to-back wins to open the season is deserved. The Illini have already matched their win total from last season, and Cubit's offense is looking the complete opposite of one that ranked near the bottom of the college football world last year. It's scored 97 points, amassed 986 yards of total offense and seen its quarterback throw for six touchdowns and 728 yards in just two games.
"I think the biggest thing is that our guys are trying to understand what we're trying to do as an offense better," Scheelhaase said. "We're understanding not only this is how the play is supposed to be drawn up but exactly why we're running this play against this coverage or why we're trying to utilize certain guys in this way, why we have certain guys out there at certain moments of the game and other guys at other moments. I think when you've got guys that are really understanding not only what you're doing but why you're doing it, it makes you a lot better. And that's something that coach Cubit has taught us from Day 1."
"He's a treat. He really is," Cubit said of his quarterback. "He's just such calm guy out there, and he never gets rattled. He just goes out there, and he plays the game. And he's so intelligent. For me, it's just a pleasure to watch him go out there and have fun. For a guy that's been a little bit maligned around here, right now I think he's leading the Big Ten in passing. I don't think there's many people in Big Ten territory who thought that would ever happen."
The Illini figure to have a big audience Saturday at Soldier Field, one that is curious to see just how long this hot streak can last. The Illini, again, likely won't be favored to win, but a strong showing would continue the positive vibe surrounding this program for the first time in a long time. And Beckman's group is thrilled to have the chance.
"Not everybody gets to do this. I think it's a phenomenal opportunity for any student-athlete that gets to go in and say that they got to play a college football game in the orange and blue at Soldier Field," Beckman said. "I know this is one of the things that we want to continue to do as a program because it's a unique experience, an experience that college football gives a young man. It just happens to be in our state and up in one of our cities. So we're excited about going up to Chicago."