Big Ten football preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

Big Ten football preview: Illinois Fighting Illini
August 2, 2013, 8:30 am
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Vinnie Duber

Tim Beckman’s first season as Illinois’ head coach went about as badly as it possibly could have.

Hired away from Toledo after an upsetting end to the Ron Zook Era in Champaign, Beckman kicked off his tenure the same way his predecessor did: winless in Big Ten play.

And unfortunately for the Illini, things don’t look too much better for 2013. Sure, Beckman was able to get touted quarterback Wes Lunt to transfer in from Oklahoma State, but Lunt’s unable to don the orange and blue until the 2014 season, meaning this season is shaping up to have the same kind of disappointments as the last.

[Big Ten football preview: Michigan State Spartans]

In 2012, Illinois ranked last in the conference in passing yardage and second-to-last in rushing yardage. And, of course, they had the conference’s worst record at 0-8.

In an attempt to solve some of those issues, the Illini brought in a new offensive coordinator in Bill Cubit, who spent the previous eight seasons as the head coach at Western Michigan.

“Bill Cubit, I don't know if words could actually describe what I think he's meant to this staff since he's joined us in January,” Beckman said at Big Ten media day. “He's got a great background of being a leader. He's got a great background of calling plays. Probably called a million plays plus in his career. So bringing that to this program has been outstanding, as all of our coaches, has definitely added to the dimensions of making our football program better.”

[Big Ten football preview: Purdue Boilermakers]

But even if Cubit brings the best system in the country with him, the players know the task of getting some success going at Illinois is up to them.

"It's been great working with Coach Cubit,” said senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. “He's been in a bunch of different programs and has always had success on the offensive side of the ball. Because we've had that opportunity to work with him all spring and all camp, it makes us excited as offensive players.

“The key for us -- it doesn't matter how much he knows it and how much he's learned -- it's the players knowing it and being able to know exactly why he's calling plays, exactly what we're trying to accomplish each and every time we get out there."

Last year

Record: 2-10 (0-8 Big Ten)

Bowl: The Fighting Illini did not qualify for the postseason last year.

At the helm

Tim Beckman is just in Year Two as the head man in Champaign. Though the first season was disastrous, he did inherit a program that had a hard time winning games before he arrived. Sometimes it takes time, as fellow head coach Kirk Ferentz of Iowa knows.

[Big Ten football preview: Minnesota Golden Gophers]

“Typically, if you're 0-8, it's going to require patience,” Ferentz said at media day. “You hope you have an administration that understands that process and understands what it is you're trying to get accomplished and then allow you to go do the work you have to do.”

On the 2013 schedule

Illinois’ big non-conference game comes Sep. 14 against Washington, not because it’s necessarily a marquee matchup but because it’ll be played at Soldier Field.

It appears that it will be very difficult for Beckman to get his first Big Ten win quickly. Illinois opens with Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State. The big opportunities come against Indiana and Purdue, but those games are both on the road.

Under center

Scheelhaase is entering his fourth year as the Illini quarterback. His junior year was a tad disjointed due to injury and Beckman’s tendency to shift quarterbacks around during games, switching between Scheelhaase and Riley O’Toole. This year, Beckman has emphatically named Scheelhaase the starter, but that could be more because of what O’Toole is lacking.

[Big Ten football preview: Iowa Hawkeyes]

“Nathan Scheelhaase is our starting quarterback right now. He had an outstanding spring in Bill Cubit's new offense,” Beckman said. “Riley O'Toole had a good, good spring for us also. But he's got to take away some of those turnovers. Way too many turnovers in the spring football game. He understands that. He's got to be a more sure quarterback in his decision-making so that those types of things don't happen.”

Back in the fold

Running back Donovonn Young was the leader in a less-than-impressive rushing attack last season for Illinois, but he’s a year older this year and playing behind a more experienced offensive line. The key returnee on defense is linebacker Jonathan Brown, who, like Scheelhaase, faced injury problems last year. He missed three games and the entirety of practice this spring.

Season outlook

As low a bar as it might be, the goal for Beckman’s club will to win at least one game in conference play this season. That could be a more difficult proposition than it seems, given a very, very tough schedule that features almost the entire cream of the Big Ten crop. But it’s not out of the question, and dates with Indiana and Purdue should provide as good an opportunity as the Illini will get.