- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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Tim Beckman took the Illini to a bowl for the first time since 2011 and cooled his hot seat. But a loss to Louisiana Tech in the bowl game has already warmed it back up. If QB Wes Lunt can’t stay healthy and the Big Ten’s worst defense doesn’t get better, another .500 regular season could send Beckman packing.
How the Illini will beat you: When healthy, Oklahoma State transfer Lunt (out five games with a broken left leg) was one of the Big Ten’s most efficient QBs, completing 63.5 percent of his throws (No. 2 in the league) with 14 TDs and 3 INTs. Three of the top four pass catchers are also back from the league’s No. 2 pass offense (249.8 ypg), but sophomore slot WR Mike Dudek (76 catches and 1,038 yards, both No. 2 among freshmen in the FBS) went down with an ACL injury this spring and is out until midseason. Senior Geronimo Allison, a 6-4 deep threat, chipped in 41 catches at a 14.6- ypc clip, and RB Josh Ferguson was second on the team with 50 catches.
How you beat the Illini: Illinois is in trouble when it faces a secondary that can win individual matchups behind a strong pass rush. The line is experienced, although it will be working in a redshirt freshman, but it’s not a very strong unit (37 sacks allowed, tied for No. 107) and isn’t equipped to move the chains on the ground: The Illini averaged 3.7 yards per rush (No. 96), and 31 percent of rushes went for zero or negative yards (No. 119). Behind Ferguson, there is limited backfield experience, with juco transfer Henry Enyenihi battling sophomore Kendrick Foster (zero career carries) for No. 2.
How the Illini will beat you: The Illini do return seven starters, but they were part of the Big Ten’s worst overall defense; surrendering 456.4 ypg and 34 ppg put Illinois dead last in the league in both categories. So Beckman isn’t expecting his defense to win games. But one area where it does thrive is converting turnovers into points, most notably versatile corner V’Angelo Bentley, who returned an INT and a fumble for a TD last season, two of the Illini’s 4 defensive TDs. While its 19 total turnovers was only No. 8 in the Big Ten, expect Illinois to ball-hawk even more in 2015 with five starters returning in the back seven, including LB Mason Monheim, who had two picks, one for a TD.
How you beat the Illini: Gone are the Illini’s top two tackles-for-loss leaders in star LB Earnest Thomas III and DT Austin Teitsma (19 TFL combined). With two new starters on the front four, expect the opposition to keep to the ground, where the Illini gave up 239.2 ypg (No. 115) and 31 TDs, second most behind only Rutgers in the Big Ten. Every opponent reached the 100-yard rushing mark last season, seven racked up more than 200 yards and two topped 400 yards. At least the rush defense kept things exciting; it allowed 33 carries of 20-plus yards, tied for third most in the FBS.
Tim Beckman took the Illini to a bowl for the first time since 2011 and cooled his hot seat. But a loss to Louisiana Tech in the bowl game has already warmed it back up.