Monday, August 13, 2012
Best Case/Worst Case: Illinois
By Brian Bennett
Now that the season is just around the corner, it's time to take our annual look at the best- and worst-case scenarios for each Big Ten team.
Last year, we did this in video form, but you'll have to read words this time around. We'll go in alphabetical order in this series, and try to have a little fun along the way. First up is Illinois.
It's Beck-mania! The Illini have long been seen as underachievers, but first-year coach Tim Beckman is able to wring the best out of the talent Ron Zook collected in Champaign. Beckman inherited a strong defense that turns things up a notch in 2012, and his spread system is the cure to what ailed the offense in the second half of 2011. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase fully embraces the spread, using his legs and arm to become one of the Big Ten's most dynamic playmakers. The skill position question marks become answers as Josh Ferguson, Donovonn Young and Darius Millines all make the leap. Defensive end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Jonathan Brown battle for the national lead in sacks, while defensive tackle Akeem Spence plays up to his first-round potential.
The Illini cruise through the nonconference schedule, waxing another first-year coach at a major program by winning handily at Arizona State. They beat Penn State by two touchdowns in the Big Ten opener, after which several Nittany Lions players are seen talking to Illinois assistants about a possible 2013 transfer. Illinois loses at Wisconsin the following week but pulls a stunner in Ann Arbor by catching Michigan looking ahead to the Michigan State game. It loses at Ohio State on Nov. 3, but ends the season with a four-touchdown win at Northwestern as Rahm Emanuel presents Beckman a key to the city. Since Wisconsin finishes with three losses, the Illini clinch the title in the probation-saddled Leaders Division. Hungry Illinois fans flock to Indianapolis, where their team knocks off Michigan a second time to advance to the Rose Bowl. Just like that, it's a football school again.
They fired Ron Zook for this? Beckman finds that he's not in Toledo anymore, as his transition to the Big Ten is a rough one. While the defense is solid, it misses Whitney Mercilus and Vic Koenning more than anyone realized. The spread system is an odd fit for a team that lacks many playmakers at receiver or running back, and neither Scheelhaase nor Reilly O'Toole is fully able to master it in a seesaw quarterback competition. Much like the second half of last year, Illinois simply can't score, and its special-teams play hasn't improved much.
The Beckman era gets off to a shaky start when Western Michigan -- which played a close game in Champaign a year ago -- springs the upset in the opener. The Illini are 0-2 after a loss at Arizona State. They rebound to win the next two but are crushed at home by a Penn State team that's angry about all those Illini assistants sniffing around State College this summer. That begins a spiral of losing, as the next two games are blowouts on the road at Wisconsin and Michigan. Illinois beats Indiana but falls at Ohio State, drops another home game to Purdue and ends the year getting pushed around by resurgent Northwestern. The Wildcats somehow win the Big Ten and prompt Chicago to dye the river purple. Meanwhile, the Illini sit at home after a 4-8 season, wondering what the future holds.