Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Season report card: Illinois
By Brian Bennett
We're handing out grades to each Big Ten team for its regular-season performance on offense, defense, special teams and overall play. For Illinois (4-8, 1-7) this serves as a final grade, as there's no bowl game in sight. But at least the marks are higher than they were last year in Champaign.
Here you go, Illini:
There's a reason Bill Cubit just got a two-year contract extension and a nice raise. In one year, he transformed what had been a moribund unit into a legitimate scoring attack.
Nathan Scheelhaase led the Big Ten in passing yards in 2013.
Cubit engineered a spread offense that averaged 29.7 points and over 426 yards per game. The Illini finished second in the league in passing yardage, and revived quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase led the Big Ten in passing yards by a wide margin with 3,272, to go along with 21 touchdowns. After injuries threatened to decimate the receiving corps, senior Steve Hull emerged late in the year to post huge stats in his final few games. The spread and quick passing game also covered some of the deficiencies of the offensive line, which did a much better job protecting Scheelhaase this season.
The running game was less successful, as Illinois finished just 10th in the league in rushing. But Josh Ferguson showed some big-time playmaking skills on his way to 779 yards and five touchdowns. For the most part, Illinois fielded a better-than-respectable offense for the majority of the season.
Thank goodness for Indiana. If not for the Hoosiers, Illinois would have had the worst defense in the Big Ten. It was still awful, yielding 481 yards and 35.4 points per game. The Illini had the worst rushing defense of any FBS AQ team in the country, giving up more than 238 yards per game on the ground. So, yeah, it was bad, especially in games like the 56-32 loss to Wisconsin, the 60-35 loss to Ohio State and the 52-35 loss to Indiana.
Linebacker Jonathan Brown was one of the few defensive standouts, with 119 total tackles and 15 tackles for loss. But Illinois just wasn't strong enough up front and couldn't slow down opposing passing games. Head coach Tim Beckman plans to keep the defensive staff intact, including coordinator Tim Banks, in hopes that a still very young unit will improve as it matures. He'd better be right about that.
Special teams: C
The kicking game was mostly a disaster in Beckman's first year, so it's notable that special teams improved to a mediocre level in 2013. V'Angelo Bentley helped solve some of the kick return woes that plagued the team the past couple of seasons. Justin DuVernois was solid at punter. Taylor Zalewski went 12-of-17 on field goals, though he did have a 54-yarder in the desperately-needed win over Purdue.
Illinois definitely showed minor improvement in the second season under Beckman. The Illini doubled their win total, notched their first Big Ten victory after an embarrassing 20-game losing streak and at least fielded a competent, at times explosive, offense. But the defense actually got worse, and after a 3-1 start that included an upset of Cincinnati, Illinois finished 1-7. If the team makes one more play at Penn State and against Northwestern in the finale, the season not only looks much different but we're talking about a bowl game for Illinois. But the program just isn't there yet.