Thursday, August 21, 2014
Best case/Worst case: Illinois
By Adam Rittenberg
We are a week away from football, and as the season preview winds down, we are taking a look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for each Big Ten team in 2014.
As a reminder, these aren't actual predictions or even projections of probable outcomes this fall. They are designed to show the potential high point and low point for a team, within reason. Also, we are trying to have some fun here, so don't take things too seriously.
Up next: the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Oskee wow-wow, indeed. Illinois is going bowling again and surprising the Big Ten along the way. The Illini ride the transfer train and the development of several young players to an extremely satisfying 2014 season.
Quarterback Wes Lunt shows immediately why he is the right man to lead Bill Cubit's offense, shredding Youngstown State and Western Illinois for a combined 750 passing yards and seven touchdowns. The Block I shouts "Geronimo!" as wide receiver Geronimo Allison hauls in two long scoring passes in his first game for the Orange and Blue.
Illinois heads to Seattle at 2-0 but still concerned about how its defense will hold up. Turns out, the D is the biggest reason for a huge "W" at Husky Stadium, as Illinois stuns Chris Petersen's Washington team. T.J. Neal and Jihad Ward force second-half fumbles and the Illini prevail 20-17.
After an easy win against Texas State, the Illini fall just short at Nebraska but rebound the next week with a 50-point performance against Purdue, as Josh Ferguson runs for 200 yards. Illinois pushes Wisconsin to overtime before falling in Madison, but the defense once again stands tall in a win against Minnesota. The Illini are bowl-eligible, and they are nowhere near finished.
Following a 3-point loss at Ohio State, Illinois wins its final three Big Ten contests, two against rivals (Iowa and Northwestern). Iowa's first game against Illinois since 2008 is a disaster, as the Hawkeyes lose by 14 at a packed Memorial Stadium and cameras catch coach Kirk Ferentz chewing tobacco on the sideline. In the Northwestern contest, freshman wideout Mikey Dudek has three touchdown catches and Ward levels Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald on the sideline. A mostly Illinois crowd cheers as offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic scores on a two-point conversion to seal a 50-17 win. The Chicago papers declare Illinois as the city's real Big Ten team, while Northwestern finishes 2-10.
Tim Beckman wins Big Ten Coach of the Year. Allison wins the Big Ten's Richter-Howard award as the top receiver, while "Geronimo!" T-shirts can be spotted all around campus. Illinois sells out its final three home games. Cubit turns down three higher-paying offensive coordinator jobs to stick with the Illini. The nation's top three junior-college players sign with Illinois, and the high school recruits roll in. The Illini advance to the Holiday Bowl and beat UCLA to finish 10-3.
Oskee ow-ow. It's another gloomy fall in Champaign, where Illinois fans quickly begin counting the days until basketball season. They don't show up in the stands and, most Saturdays, neither does the team. Cover your eyes, Illini Nation ...
After two unsatisfying wins to open the season, Illinois gets pummeled at Husky Stadium. Lunt throws three interceptions and Washington's running back committee racks up 250 yards. Beckman has to be separated from his defensive assistants in the second half.
Illinois improves to 3-1 against Texas State but suffers another road beating at Nebraska, as Ameer Abdullah runs for four touchdowns. The following week, Purdue records its first Big Ten win under Darrell Hazell as Illinois can't find the end zone in a 21-6 loss. Beckman announces a quarterback change two days later. Several starters come down with food poisoning after eating beans and weenies.
It gets uglier in Madison as Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement run wild on a defense that clearly hasn't improved from 2013. Wisconsin leads by 40 after three quarters, but cameras catch some Illini players smiling and doing the "Jump Around." They incur Beckman's wrath during practice the next week.
Only 26,000 fans show up the next week for the Minnesota game, and those in Illini colors wish they hadn't. Minnesota rushes for 330 yards and wins 28-3. Beckman draws a penalty for obstructing an official on the sideline -- again.
More blowouts follow against Ohio State and Penn State. Following the loss to Penn State, several Illini players ask Nittany Lions coach James Franklin if they can transfer to PSU.
The season ends with another lopsided loss at Northwestern, which clinches the West Division title before a sold-out Ryan Field. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel attends the game in a purple leotard. A smiling Dick Butkus poses for pictures afterward with Fitzgerald.
Ward finishes with no sacks and Allison fails to record a touchdown catch. Beckman seems done at Illinois but athletic director Mike Thomas, who hired him, says the coach will return in 2015. Cubit won't as he's off to the SEC. Attendance continues to nosedive. Northwestern wins the Big Ten. Iowa wins the Orange Bowl.