Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Midseason report: Illinois
By Adam Rittenberg
Record: 2-5 (0-3 Big Ten)
Tim Beckman didn't inherit a mess at Illinois, even if it looks that way after the first seven games. Beckman came to Champaign to bolster a program that, while underachieving since 2007, had won back-to-back bowl games for the first time in history. Although depth was an issue, top-level talent didn't seem to be, especially on defense. Although few projected Illinois to wind up in Indianapolis, most expected the Illini to go bowling again.
No one could have foreseen the disaster that has taken place in the first half of Beckman's first season as coach. Each of Illinois' losses has been by 17 points or more and four of the five defeats have come by 28 points or more. Illinois has dropped its first three Big Ten contests by a combined score of 111-21. Illinois' only wins have been against a Charleston Southern team that didn't win a game last season and has just two wins this fall, and a below-average Western Michigan squad.
Most of the problems have been on offense, which lacks an identity and ranks no better than 96th nationally in any major category and is tied for 117th in the FBS in turnovers (18). The Illini have no players ranked in the Big Ten's top 10 in rushing, passing or receiving. Illinois' defense hasn't gotten any help, but it also has performed well below expectations, particularly against spread offenses. The Illini allowed more than 30 points just twice in 2011. They already have done so five times this season. Some of the special-teams issues that plagued Illinois last fall have resurfaced this year.
It can't seem to get much worse for Beckman's crew, which gets an open week to regroup before a somewhat manageable closing stretch. But there's a lot of work ahead for a team that has taken a significant step backward.
Offensive MVP: RB Josh Ferguson. There's no obvious choice here as offensive weapons are in short supply for Illinois right now, but Ferguson has shown he can help the Illini in a variety of ways. He ranks second on the squad in both rushing yards (210) and receiving yards (199), and has served as the team's primary kickoff returner. Ferguson ranks eighth in the Big Ten in all-purpose yards (112.2 ypg). WR Ryan Lankford, RB Donovonn Young and QB Nathan Scheelhaase also merit mentions.
Defensive MVP: LB Jonathan Brown. Again, no clear picks on an underachieving unit, but Brown leads the team in tackles for loss (6.5) and ranks second in total tackles (44). He has recorded at least a half tackle for loss in five of seven games and also boasts a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Other defenders worth noting include Ashante Williams, who plays the star position, along with defensive end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Mason Monheim, one of the Big Ten's top freshman defenders.