Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Season report card: Illinois
By Brian Bennett
Before players can take part in bowls -- or go home if their team is not in the postseason -- they must first finish their final exams. Here on the blog, we're passing out final grades for the regular season for each Big Ten team -- offense, defense, special teams and overall -- before the league kicks off its bowl season later this month.
First up, the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Illinois finished second-to-last in the FBS in total offense and in scoring at 16.7 points per game, a number that seems high when compared to the team's output in Big Ten play: a putrid 11.8 points per contest. The offensive line was a disaster, and neither quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase nor Reilly O'Toole could consistently move the chains. Moving to a spread system under new coach Tim Beckman, the Illini had nothing to hang their hats on with a weak running and weak passing game. The team was held to seven points or fewer in three Big Ten games. The leading rusher was Donovonn Young with 571 yards in 12 games, while Ryan Lankford's 469 receiving yards were most on the squad. Illinois also had more interceptions and lost fumbles than it did offensive touchdowns. Just a near total failure here.
There were some top-flight playmakers on this side of the ball with guys like Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown. Unfortunately, it didn't translate into results, as the Illini surrendered more than 32 points per game, fielded the worst pass efficiency defense in the Big Ten and yielded more than 190 rushing yards per contest. Injuries depleted the unit during the course of the season, and there were embarrassing performances like the 45-14 loss to Arizona State, the 52-24 defeat to Louisiana Tech and the 50-14 season-ending setback at rival Northwestern. At least true freshmen linebackers Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina showed promise.
Special teams: D-plus
The absence of Ron Zook didn't end the Illinois problems on special teams. The Illini were once again one of the worst punt- and kickoff-return units in the country. They made only eight of their 12 field goal tries. On the plus side, they did lead the Big Ten in punting, as Justin DuVernois had a solid year (and was asked to punt a lot). Still, a team that struggled to move the ball on offense didn't do many things to help itself with field position.
Sorry to be harsh with the grades, but there just wasn't much of anything to like about Beckman's first year in Champaign. Illinois beat just one FBS team -- Western Michigan, which later fired its coach. After that season opening win, the Illini went 1-10 with the only victory over an FCS opponent (Charleston Southern). Only one of those losses came by fewer than two touchdowns (20-17 against Purdue). Attendance plummeted and many fans have already lost faith in Beckman, who said at one point that he had lost 22 pounds during the trying season. Beckman is seeking some immediate help by signing several junior-college transfers. He has to upgrade just about every facet of this team, and there likely will be a staff shakeup. He and Illinois fans everywhere will have to hope the 2012 season represented rock bottom for the program.