This is the latest in a series of articles previewing Big Ten football in 2012. A rough schedule of previous and upcoming preview articles is provided at the end of this article.
Last season was an interesting dichotomy for the Illinois Fighting Illini, as a 6-0 start completely unraveled in an 0-6 finish. The goodwill that Ron Zook had built up in lucking into a Rose Bowl berth in 2007 had evaporated and the six-game losing streak forced him out the door.
Of course, then the Illini drew another struggling 6-6 (6-7 following the conference championship loss) team with a fired head coach in the Fight Hunger Bowl. The Illini restored some pride by winning this awkward game, but beating a weak UCLA team could not erase the pain of blowing all that potential after the 6-0 start and the Top 15 national ranking.
Illinois went out and hired Tim Beckman away from Toledo, where he had led the Rockets to three fairly successful seasons in MAC play. Expect the strong running games of the past to be combined with a spread attack now that Beckman brings the experience from Toledo to the table. Thankfully Beckman inherits a lot of talent and a senior quarterback to adjust to the new schemes.
The offseason was not without controversy, though, as Illinois actively recruited Penn State players on the campus in State College. Where other Big Ten coaches refused to tread, Illinois jumped right in with the feeding frenzy. Although there may be a little black eye on the reputation of Beckman within the league to start, he did pick up a talented freshman lineman Ryan Nowicki by taking the initiative.
With the Nittany Lions and the Buckeyes out of the division title chase, could this open the door for the Illini to steal the division away from Wisconsin? Will Beckman be able to avoid the mediocrity of the past few seasons under Zook? Let's jump in.
After regularly averaging 400 yards per game or more on offense every season since 2007, the 2011 Illini suffered a huge setback despite having seven returning starters. The loss of Mikel LeShoure was felt as Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole both struggled to find a groove in the passing game. The rushing game alone went from 246 yards per game to 172 yards per game.
That led to the eventual six-game slide following the strong 6-0 start. Once teams figured out that they could sit back against the Illini offense and force the unit to be one-dimensional, the underperforming offense failed to put up more than 14 points in any game except against Wisconsin. But the Badgers were giving away points early in that contest.
With seven starters returning again and a new regime to learn on offense, one might expect similar struggles in 2012. However, it is unlikely that the offense will fail to execute as much as they did under Ron Zook.
Although O'Toole will probably continue to see playing time at quarterback, the main burden will still be on junior QB Scheelhaase to move the chains. He rushed for over 600 yards net last year and passed for over 2,100 more. Unfortunately, his favorite target A.J. Jenkins is now gone.
Which means it will fall to a set of juniors with a lot of experience to pick up the slack for Jenkins. Darius Millines and Spencer Harris will lead the way, but Ryan Lankford will also see a lot of throws from the slot position. The receivers will not be as good without Jenkins, but Scheelhaase should be more accurate in his junior season and that will help significantly.
The offensive line struggled along with the rest of the offense in the back half of 2011, but that had more to do with being injured and banged up than poor play. With Graham Pocic at center and Hugh Thornton over at left guard, the line play should remain strong in 2012. That should help sophomore Donovonn Young push for a 1,000-yard rushing season following splitting time with Jason Ford and Troy Pollard in 2011.
The offense might not get back to 400 yards per game, but there will be no step further back. Illinois will have just enough offense to be competitive in most games.
Although Illinois struggled on offense more than usual in 2011, the defense was rock solid and put up some of the best numbers in the past decade. The Illini actually held opponents under 20 points per game, a number that would normally be good enough to compete for a conference championship and a BCS bowl.
This year, the defense will adjust schemes and will use a 3-4 defense that may exploit some mismatches between linebackers and offensive linemen. The nose tackle and the defensive line is key to making the 3-4 defense work, and Illinois unexpectedly got Akeem Spence to stay another season to anchor the line.
Although the loss of Whitney Mercilus (16 sacks, nine forced fumbles) will certainly be felt, Glenn Foster and Justin Staples are two seniors who should be able to continue to get into the opposing backfield to disrupt the quarterbacks and running backs.
Speaking of getting into the backfield, two returning linebackers, Jonathan Brown and Michael Buchanan, combined for 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss a season ago. Add to that 108 tackles for Brown to lead the team and there is more than enough power in the defensive front seven to make life difficult for Big Ten opponents.
The defensive backfield was the primary driver in the improved numbers a season ago, and only CB Tavon Wilson is gone from the two-deep at these positions. Consequently, Beckman should expect another season with under 175 passing yards given up a game.
Beckman has expressed happiness with the toughness this unit has shown in the first few practices of fall camp. If the Illini continue to generate turnovers and force opposing offenses into unfavorable third-down situations, a much better finish than 2-6 in conference play should be in the cards.
Although the offense stumbled down the stretch and the defense was mostly solid, the special teams was the glue that was missing in the 2011 Illini. Derek Dimke was the only bright point in a statistically terrible unit, with 10-12 field goals. However, even Dimke failed the team by missing an important field goal for the tie late against Penn State.
Freshman punter Justin DuVernois struggled to achieve a 35-yard net average on punts, and that number should improve with better coverage. Beckman is committed to putting his best players out there on special teams and that will likely improve the field position bump whenever Illinois has to punt. But a freshman kicker and an inconsistent sophomore punter is still a recipe for disaster.
The return game was even worse than the punting a season ago, as Ryan Lankford averaged a pathetic 1.7 yards per return in 19 returns. Kick returns usually were not much more than 20 yards either, so one has to assume that the numbers will be better this season.
They key is getting some better blocking so that the speedy skill position players have opportunities to make tacklers miss rather than being swarmed. If Illinois can just find mediocrity in special teams, the difference could be monumental in final results when the season is done. This is the most pressing concern, and Beckman is trying to address it head on.
The Illini schedule for 2012 looks like this, with predictions on wins and losses in parentheses:
9/1—Western Michigan (loss)
9/8—at Arizona State (win)
9/15—Charleston Southern (win)
9/22—Louisiana Tech (win)
9/29—Penn State (win)
10/6—at Wisconsin (loss)
10/13—at Michigan (loss)
11/3—at Ohio State (loss)
11/24—at Northwestern (win)
Projected record: 7-5, 4-4 Big Ten
So the key to the season will be whether or not the young players on special teams can step up for their new coach and play like every play is critical. If that urgency is shown in fall practice and on the field in September, then a winning record is certainly achievable in 2012 conference play.
The good news about the conference schedule is that the home slate is filled with the easier teams. Although I project a close loss against Purdue, do not be surprised if Illinois goes 4-0 at home in conference play. Memorial Stadium with the wind swirling can be a very difficult place to play, especially against a defense this strong.
The bad news is that the road games are brutal. Ohio State was far worse a season ago and won at Illinois, and the back-to-back games at Madison and Ann Arbor are likely the hardest duo of games any team will face this season. If Illinois navigates the first two tricky games of the season with one or two victories, then a bowl game should definitely happen.
You could easily swap the results of the final two games projected above, and also the first two games. However, new head coaches usually end up capping out at seven or eight wins, and that's what I think is most likely with this experienced Illini group. Not quite enough to win a division title, but one win at Madison could change all that (don't hold your breath, Illini fans).
Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or questions about this or other articles in the 2012 Big Ten football preview series, please contact David on Twitter.
Big Ten Season Preview 2012 Summary
Team Previews: Minnesota preview, Indiana preview, Northwestern preview, Illinois preview; Iowa preview; Penn State preview; Michigan State preview; Purdue preview; Nebraska preview; Ohio State preview; Michigan preview; Wisconsin preview
B1G Scouting Reports: Sun Belt/WAC report
That's it for the preview...thanks for reading and now the season is here!