Big Ten: Martez Wilson
For the first time in nearly two decades, Illinois will host a football game in the city it covets but rarely has captured, at least in recent years. Already at their victory total from last season, the Illini on Saturday take on No. 17 Washington at Soldier Field, making their first appearance on the lakefront since 1994 and just their second ever.
Billed as Illinois' Chicago Homecoming, the game caps off a weekend of events, including a luncheon with Dick Butkus, a Chicago native who launched his legend at Illinois and cemented it with the Chicago Bears. Butkus, a two-time All-American linebacker and Big Ten MVP who led the Illini to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl win against Washington 50 years ago, also will toss the coin before the game.
"We need to do something for the Chicago area because so many kids are leaving the state," Butkus told ESPN.com. "I just feel Illinois, with the largest number of alumni in the city of any school, we should be able to do a better job of recruiting kids out of here. We've got guys going to LSU, USC, the Michigans, Ohio States and Notre Dames, and even Northwestern.
"We've got to get back to getting our own kids to go to our own school."
The school's promotional video for the game is appropriately set to Diddy's "Coming Home," in which Skylar Grey sings:
I'm coming home, I'm coming home
Tell the world I'm coming home
Let the rain wash away
All the pain of yesterday
I know my kingdom awaits
And they've forgiven my mistakes
I'm coming home, I'm coming home.
It will take more than rain to wash away the pain from the 2012 season, when Illinois went 2-10 and failed to win a Big Ten game, or forgive the program's inability to capitalize on a Rose Bowl run in 2007 and a series of elite players who became high NFL draft picks. But for the first time in more than a year, the sun shone on the Illini, whose 45-17 victory against a good Cincinnati team last Saturday couldn't have come at a better time.
"It was important, especially beating a very good football team," Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas told ESPN.com. "I know there's buzz around the program. You would think there would be an impact moving forward with the game this weekend."
While Grey sings of kingdoms, Thomas in August 2011 famously proclaimed that he wanted Illinois to become "king of Chicago." He had recently become Illinois' AD, and his ambitious approach made sense for a school with a huge alumni/fan presence in the market but one that had largely disappeared from the sporting radar, at least in football.
Illinois moved the needle to start the 2011 season, recording its first 6-0 start in 60 years. The Illini proceeded to make history of a different sort, dropping the rest of their regular-season games to become the first FBS team to start 6-0 and finish 6-6. The collapse cost coach Ron Zook his job, and Thomas' hiring of Tim Beckman -- after being rebuffed by Kevin Sumlin and others -- didn't inspire much excitement in Chicago and around the state.
And then the 2012 season happened, when nothing went right for Beckman and his team. The clunky campaign ended with a 50-14 loss at rival Northwestern, which had combined consistent on-field success with an effective marketing campaign ("Chicago's Big Ten team) to make a dent in Chicago's saturated sports market.
Illinois entered this season as a near-consensus last-place pick, and its homecoming game at Soldier Field -- scheduled before the 2012 season -- looked like a tough sell, if not an impossible one, to a fan base that, despite its size, puts basketball first and seems quick to dismiss the football program, even in better times.
That's why the Cincinnati win could be so important. It allowed Illinois fans, including those in the Chicago area, to feel good about their program for the first time in a while.
"It gives us a sense of an identity," said senior wide receiver Miles Osei, who grew up near Chicago in Mount Prospect, Ill. "People in the Chicago area and people that follow Illinois football can sense that. Maybe in the past they haven't had that much of an identity, but we're definitely establishing it."
When Butkus grew up on Chicago's South Side, Illinois had a much stronger presence in the city. He remembers facing future Illini teammates such as Jim Grabowski and Gregg Schumacher in city playoff games.
Illinois coach Pete Elliott and his staff relentlessly recruited city players. Bill Taylor lured Butkus out of Vocational High School. But the slush-fund scandal in 1966 led to Elliott's resignation, followed by 13 losing seasons in the next 14 years.
Butkus recalls that most of Elliott's assistants went to work for Levi Strauss in sales after things fell apart in Champaign.
"Dammit, those guys knew how to sell," Butkus said. "They were a young group, just great guys. You wanted to play for 'em. We had talented guys. I just do not understand why we have a tough time recruiting out of here. I guess playing at Soldier Field, we're trying to get the presence going, but you've got to work the high schools."
Beckman and his assistants are trying to do just that. They held three camps in the area this summer and a spring scrimmage at Gately Stadium on the city's South Side.
Zook made local recruiting splashes with players such as Martez Wilson and Juice Williams, both Chicago natives (Williams also attended Vocational High). The pipeline to elite prospects since has dried up a bit, although Aaron Bailey, a four-star quarterback from Chicago suburb Bolingbrook, headlined the 2013 class.
"It's huge," Beckman said. "It's not like three guys are up there and they recruit Chicago. Every coach on this staff has a piece of Chicago, so that everybody in that city gets to meet our coaching staff, from quarterback coach to DB coach.
"We're not to where we want to be, but we’ve definitely made strides."
"That's been baffling me for 48 years," he said. "I don't understand it."
He hopes the Chicago homecoming can be a starting point, and the mood around the game and the events undoubtedly will be better after the Cincinnati win. The hope is that the good feelings will translate into more butts in seats on Saturday.
As of Tuesday, Illinois was approaching 40,000 tickets sold, according to Jason Heggemeyer, the school's associate athletic director for ticketing and sales. Thomas said 50,000 "might be a little bit ambitious" but added that the school's Chicago-based fans often wait to buy tickets for events like Illinois' annual basketball game at the United Center. The walk-up crowd also could be good.
"You’d hope Saturday's win would resonate with a good number of people," Thomas said. "We haven't played up there since the early 90s."
The weekend will be a test run of sorts, as Thomas is interested in playing more football games in Chicago. After launching the "Illinois. Our State. Our Team" marketing campaign in August 2012 and forming a Chicago athletics advisory board in February, Thomas is looking for different and more aggressive ways to brand Illinois in the area.
"You can't take a day off," Thomas said. "Year in and year out, you've got to have a real presence up there, and I don't think in the past that's been the case."
Thomas is right about the recent past, but there was a time when Illinois football truly resonated in the Midwest's largest market. Butkus lived through it, and he wants to bring it back.
"Shoot, we'd all like to play in the BCS championship, but that's not where we're at right now," he said. "At least give the team some support. If they know of anybody or their own kids looking to play, why wouldn't you go to Illinois? It's a great school.
"We've just got to spread the word and get people more excited about it."
The description didn't change much when Illinois canned Zook in November following seven seasons. Zook signed several nationally elite recruiting classes, including the 2007 crop (headlined by Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson), and he continued to recruit well until the on-field results took a dive. Illinois' recent NFL draft success -- the Illini have produced five first-round picks since 2008, more than any other Big Ten team during the span -- underscores the fact that Zook and his assistants knew where to find talent.
Tim Beckman arrived in Champaign with a similar recruiting profile to Zook's. He was known for his recruiting efforts at previous stops. Although the class Illinois signed in February didn't earn high marks regionally or nationally, it didn't seem fair to judge Beckman until he had more time to put his stamp on a class.
So far, the new coach is delivering.
Illinois has added four recruits in the past week as defensive end Dawuane Smoot gave his pledge on Tuesday night. The Illini already have 14 players committed for the 2013 class, the third highest total in the Big Ten behind national leader Michigan (22) and Iowa (15), which also has surged in recent days.
According to ESPN Recruiting, the Illini have two four-star recruits -- quarterback Aaron Bailey and cornerback Darius Mosely -- along with 10 three-star prospects.
I reached out to Jared Shanker, ESPN's Midwest Recruiting Coordinator, for some thoughts on the Illini's early recruiting success under Beckman.
"That is a little surprising," Shanker writes in an email. "For some, Illinois was their biggest offer at the time and they jumped on it, but the Illini have beat out some very good programs for a number of their commitments. Aaron Bailey was also high on Nebraska and Wisconsin, and Darius Mosely is a four-star corner who had offers from several BCS programs. The two four-star commits already on board is already half the number Illinois had in the previous three classes when they picked up only four.
"As for the three-star guys, Jarrod Clements was one of the top defensive line performers at the Columbus NFTC; Caleb Day is a versatile athlete the previous Ohio State staff was high on; and Kenton Gibbs was very good this spring competing at a few camps."
Beckman, who came to Illinois from Toledo and grew up in Berea, Ohio, not surprisingly has made his home state an emphasis in recruiting. Six Illini commits hail from Ohio.
"Beckman had a reputation for not being scared to compete with the BCS programs for recruits despite being at a MAC school," Shanker writes. "That mentality is going to serve him well at Illinois as the Illini are often considered a team in the bottom half of the Big Ten. A lot of the credit goes to recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh, who really worked the Ohio area hard."
Shanker added that while Illinois' class is shaping up well, the true test will be how well the staff scouted prospects who didn't receive much interest from the rest of the Big Ten. That's where the development component comes in.
"It won't matter who else offered them if they turn out to be as good as the Illini staff believes they are," Shanker writes, "and that is really all that matters."
Marcus Aurelius writes: Interesting that your list of potential reps on a playoff selection committee with Big 10 ties does not feature anyone with SEC connections (and other than Delaney-UNC, not many southern ties that I noticed). Is this indicative of the lack of movement North-South prior to Nick Saban (and Urban Meyer)? Seems very strange to me...
Adam Rittenberg: Former Iowa coach Hayden Fry is a Texas native who spent a lot of time in the Southwest Conference, but for the most part you're right. There's not a ton of transition between the North and South. Urban Meyer obviously has made the move recently, and other Big Ten coaches like Nebraska's Bo Pelini have spent time in the SEC, but along with Saban, they're all current coaches. As far as prominent former Big Ten coaches, most have been Midwest-based in their careers. That's an interesting trend you picked up.
Yooper from Minneapolis writes: Howdy Adam. Say, do the Badgers actually have a speed issue on the defense compared to the rest of the league, or is it just perception. Seems to me it's mostly perception and chatter based mainly on the RB against a team in Oregon that would've made many teams look slow. I didn't notice a speed problem the rest of the year, when one loss was due to a fortunate bounce, and one was due to a scrambling QB (tough for DBs to contain all day long). Anyway, wondering if you know if any stats back up the speed "issue"?
Adam Rittenberg: Yooper, I was just thinking about this. The games that raised issues about Wisconsin's speed on defense were the Rose Bowl and the two contests against Michigan State. Watching Wisconsin struggle against Keshawn Martin and others in the Big Ten title game, you had to be concerned about how they'd fare against Oregon, which has like 46 Keshawn Martins. I don't think you can dismiss the speed issue with Wisconsin, and the Badgers should continue to look for speed in all three areas of their defense. Now it'd also help to identify a premier pass-rusher like O'Brien Schofield and J.J. Watt. Pressuring the quarterback more will take pressure off of the secondary.
Jeff from St. Cloud, Minn., writes: Having lived out west, the talk about these 16 team super conferences is pretty hilarious. While in no way are the dollars even remotely similar, the WAC thought it was a great idea in the 90s....until the most notable members of the original WAC decided to hold a secret meeting at the Denver airport and agreed it was ridiculous that BYU and Utah should have to share revenue with Rice and San Jose State as well as travel all these great distances for conference games. The exact same thing is going to happen when Texas and Oklahoma are sharing a 16-team split with TCU and Iowa State. The powers-that-be in each of these "super conferences" are going to find an airport and in the span of an afternoon, we'll probably be back to the Southwest Conference and the Big 8. It is 100 percent inevitable. Hopefully the Big Ten doesn't get sucked in and in a perfect world, gets back to being TEN.
Adam Rittenberg writes: Jeff, thanks for sharing your perspective on this. The revenue-sharing component is fascinating when you're talking about potential superconferences. It's one of several reasons I think the Big Ten wants to stay at 12 -- not sure about ever going from 12 to 10. That said, the Big Ten has long made equal revenue-sharing a core pillar. Nebraska eventually will receive an equal share, and the Big Ten in my view will always keep this philosophy in place because it prevents the discord we saw recently in the Big 12. When Ohio State agrees to take the same cut as Northwestern, it says something about the league. It's the "all ships will rise" theory Ohio State AD Gene Smith talks about a lot. So even if the Big Ten became 16, I think it would do so with the idea all members would eventually get an equal cut of the pie.
Ed from Dallas writes: Hey Adam,Grew up in Illinois and all my childhood all's I wanted to do was be an Illini (unfortanely 5'11" guy that couldn't run or bench press my weight)so my dream was unreasonable...but it does lead me to my question...why can't The Illini recruit the top players from Illinois? They never have..whether it was Mike White, Ron Turner, Ron Zook or the current staff. I just saw the ESPN 150 and Illinois' top players are going to USC, LSU, Michigan, ND...everywhere but the Illini. Why is there no pride in Illinois HS football players in their state university? If the Illini just recruited their own state like Texas does they'd be a powerhouse.
Adam Rittenberg: Ed, while your concern has some validity, you can't say Ron Zook didn't recruit top players from Illinois. You remember Martez Wilson and Juice Williams? They were highly-touted guys coming out of Chicago. Other decorated in-state prospects included Rashard Mendenhall (Skokie), Josh Brent (Bloomington) and Graham Pocic (Lemont). Zook also landed recruits like wide receiver Chris James and defensive tackle Lendell Buckner who had hype coming out of high school but didn't really pan out in Champaign. I understand your frustration, especially with Illinois being the biggest school in the state. But Illinois hasn't been a traditional power like Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, Texas, LSU and Alabama. The team has to start winning more consistently to motivate top recruits to choose Illinois, especially since everyone in the Big Ten recruits the Chicago area. In-state recruiting has to be a big focal point for Tim Beckman and his staff, and they made a splash with quarterback Aaron Bailey out of Bolingbrook. But it's unrealistic to think Illinois will get every top player from within its borders.
Sam from New York writes: Hi Adam,Staying with the topic of Top Individual Seasons, why was Ron Dayne left out of the main list? I believe he should even be part of the national list, not just the Big Ten. He led UW to 2 straight Rose Bowls, capped off by sweeping all the major awards his senior year, and also broke Ricky Williams' career rushing yards record - which is still Dayne's to this day.
Adam Rittenberg: Sam, I think you're making the mistake of viewing this as a career achievement award rather than a list of exceptional seasons. Dayne certainly had two terrific seasons (1996 and 1999) that were under consideration for our top five, but ultimately he fell just a bit short of the top five. And honestly, if we were to include another running back's season in the top five, we would have gone with Larry Johnson in 2002, who averaged nearly 8 yards per carry. We had a similar situation with Dayne when we considered Purdue quarterback Drew Brees. We saw Brees as a once-in-a-generation player, and a Big Ten icon in recent years. But when you looked at his individual seasons and compared them with others in the past 50 years, they didn't quite stack up. Again, five seasons is not a big list, and this wasn't a career achievement rundown. We kept several Heisman Trophy winners off of the top five list.
Jason from Kansas City, Mo., writes: Adam,FYI-Nebraska fans aren't bitter about Michigan in 1997. That doesn't even make any sense. There's nothing to be bitter about as both teams can claim they won a national championship that year (unlike Penn St in 94). I really enjoy reading your blogs but comments like these tell me you still don't have a good feeling for the Nebraska fanbase. Please do some research next time before making assumptions about how Nebraska's fans feel.
Adam Rittenberg: Jason, maybe I overstated that a bit, but I did receive several emails from both Nebraska fans and Michigan fans before the teams met last season that suggested neither side was too pleased with a split national title. It might be more from the Michigan fans, some of whom feel the Wolverines should have been outright champions in '97. But you're not speaking for the entire Nebraska fan base when you say no one is better about the split title. My inbox says otherwise.
Nate from Clemson, S.C., writes: How would the conferences react to a modification of their own championship games? Would they be open to a requirement that would match up the 2 highest rated teams at the end of the season regardless of division? This would have had Alabama vs. LSU in the conference championship game and would have certainly knocked the loser out of contention for the championship game or perhaps a playoff. It seems that this would help bolster the B1G argument for the value of winning the conference championship.
Adam Rittenberg: Nate, this is an interesting point that several others have brought up. One problem with any playoff model that requires conference champions is what happens if there's a wave of upsets in the league title games. This also would favor a league like the Big 12, which as of the moment doesn't have a league championship game. Your plan obviously would help guarantee more exciting championship games and, in many cases, worthier league champions. I still think leagues would be hesitant to get rid of the division model, which would be the only way to do this (if you have divisions, you have to use their champions in the title game). But it's important for leagues to continue to re-evaluate divisions, make changes if necessary and consider the possibility of getting rid of the divisions altogether. No one wants to see Oregon-UCLA in the title game, and LSU-Georgia didn't really move the needle, either.
In case you missed it, here's the full wrap-up.
Curt from Des Moines, Iowa: Adam - With the Buckeyes suspended from the BIG championship next year, do you like the Badger's chances of a 3 peat in Pasadena? Who could be a sleeper team in the Leaders division?
Adam Rittenberg: Curt, Ohio State's ban makes Wisconsin the clear-cut favorite in the Leaders division. It's hard to size up Penn State's chances without seeing the new coach, but the Lions will face some obstacles for sure. Could Purdue be a sleeper team? Perhaps. But the Boilers need to upgrade several areas and be much more consistent in 2012.
Myles from Ohio: Hi Adam, how do you think the Big 10 will do this year in bowl games? Particularly Iowa against a hugely talented Oklahoma team and Wisconsin against the 'speedy' Ducks. And what will the Big 10/SEC record be when all is done?
Adam Rittenberg: Myles, this has the potential to be another rough bowl season for the Big Ten. It's imperative the league gets at least a 1-1 split in the BCS games. The Big Ten-SEC matchups look more favorable than they did a year ago, and the Big Ten should win 1-2 of these games. The Big Ten-Big 12 matchups, however, look extremely tough. Would expect the Big Ten to go 0-2.
Illini Zach from Highland Park: Hi Adam, sitting in class with a professor with your same last name. You're a bit more fun though. Why is it that a team near a city like Chicago is struggling to find good recruits and coaches while the Michigans and Ohio States of the world seem to get whoever they please?
Adam Rittenberg: Really? Wonder if it's a long-lost relative? As far as Illinois goes, the Illini had some recruiting success in the Chicago area during Ron Zook's tenure, luring players like Juice Williams and Martez Wilson to Champaign. A lot of it has to do with winning and having tradition. Illinois actually has a great football history, but recent years have brought struggles and inconsistency. If Tim Beckman can win at a reasonable rate, he should be able to recruit well in the Chicago area. Will Illinois beat out Ohio State and Michigan for top recruits? It can happen, but not too often.
Greg from Louisville: As a life long Hawkeye fan and alumni, do you think it's crazy if i'm starting to think Ferentz's time should be up at Iowa? I'm not expecting national championships by any means but for a guy who is getting paid almost $3.7mm, it sure seems like they should be better than they are consistently compete in the top 15 in the nation?
Adam Rittenberg: Greg, while I don't think you should want Ferentz out, you have every right to expect more from a coach making what he makes. The program has backslid since the Orange Bowl, and the Big Ten has become more competitive with the arrival of Nebraska and Wisconsin's surge the past two years. Iowa can get a lot of coaches who can go 7-5 and be paid much less. It's fair to expect Ferentz's teams to win 9-10 games, beginning in 2012.
Mike from Madison: keep hearing from people that oh time of possession means nothing for the Ducks because thata??s how their system operates. But it actually is a huge deal considering it plays right into the hands and strength of this Wisconsin team because the Ducka??s have not yet faced an opponent that is as potent, as efficient, and as consistent on offense as Wisconsin. Looking at the stats, I think that if the Badgers hold onto the ball for 36+ mins they hands down win, 35 mins they have the advantage, 34-35 mins ita??s a close and even match, and anything less than 34 mins the Ducks win. Your thoughts?
Adam Rittenberg: Mike, Wisconsin will have an edge in time of possession, but Oregon can score on almost every play it runs. I don't think the game necessarily comes down to how long Wisconsin holds the ball. Wisconsin needs to tackle well in space, certainly better than it did against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. Ball control is important, but Oregon will have chances to score in this game. Wisconsin needs to get the Ducks off of the field.
Thanks again for the questions, and my apologies to those whose questions weren't answered (they come at me rapid-fire!).
Let's do it again soon.
Koenning won't remain Illinois' defensive coordinator on the staff of new head coach Tim Beckman, who offered him the job earlier this week. Koenning instead will take a position at another school, reportedly at North Carolina. He still will serve as Illinois' head coach in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 31 against UCLA.
"I was very honored to be considered by coach Beckman to remain at Illinois," Koenning said in a prepared statement. "After a great deal of prayer and discussion with my family, I feel it is best to explore other opportunities. Coach Beckman could not have been better during the process. I know the reason we had success the past two years was the players and coaches who all shared common goals and work ethic. It will be a positive for the returning players to have a new beginning with coach Beckman and his new staff. The support of the Illini Nation has been tremendous and hopefully they will continue to support this team in San Francisco and in the future."
Koenning has done an excellent job at Illinois since arriving after the 2009 season. He has coached two star defensive linemen in Corey Liuget, a first-round pick in April's NFL draft, and Whitney Mercilus, an All-American this season. Other players like Martez Wilson and Jonathan Brown also have developed under his watch.
Illinois ranks in the top 10 nationally in total defense, pass defense, sacks and tackles for loss this season. Although the team dropped its final six games, the Illini defense held up its end of the bargain. Koenning has ties to the ACC as he served as Clemson's defensive coordinator from 2005-08, so the North Carolina job seems to make sense.
Credit Beckman for trying to keep Koenning, who spoke Tuesday about the strong support he has received from Illinois players and fans. He also noted the importance of retaining his defensive staff with the Illini, which could have been a tougher sell for Beckman. New coaches want to have a say over their staff and often don't retain more than 1-2 of the previous coaches.
Then again, Beckman announced that defensive line coach Keith Gilmore will remain on staff in the same role.
"The defensive line was the strongest area of the team and coach Gilmore did a great job," Beckman said in a statement. "Whitney Mercilus' improvement this season under Keith was obvious, as he has been named an All-American by just about everyone. He also played a big part in Corey Liuget’s development into a first-round draft pick last year. He is a strong recruiter and will be a great asset for the program."
It will be interesting to see where Beckman turns for his defensive coordinator. His top offensive coordinator target, Toledo's Matt Campbell, is replacing Beckman as Rockets head coach.
Although Beckman's background is on the defensive side, his defenses at both Oklahoma State and Toledo weren't elite. Koenning's replacement will be crucial as Illinois returns some talented players on the defensive side.
They mixed up fronts, disguised blitzes, constantly moved players around and let creativity trump conservatism in mapping out ways to pressure Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler. With the blueprint finalized, the coaches prepared to head home.
"We kind of looked at each other and said, 'This is crazy,'" Koenning said.
The plan placed a burden on Illinois' defensive front seven, a group many outsiders questioned heading into the season, and for good reason.
Illinois had to replace three players selected in April's NFL draft: defensive tackle Corey Liuget, a first-round pick; linebacker Martez Wilson, a third-round pick; and linebacker Nate Bussey, a seventh-round pick. Both Liuget and Wilson opted to forgo their final year of eligibility, seemingly leaving the Illini in a bit of a pinch.
"They were great players, they brought a lot to the team," senior linebacker Ian Thomas said of Liuget, Wilson and Bussey, "but this year, we feel like we're a little more comfortable with the defense. We've got the defense down a little more, so it makes up for those guys that we lost."
The Illini made Koenning's crazy plan look genius Saturday night in a 17-14 win against Arizona State, which came to Champaign averaging 42.5 points and 504.5 offensive yards.
Illinois recorded six sacks, all by the front seven, and 12 tackles for loss.
Sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown had a breakout performance with an interception, 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors. Others stood out like end Whitney Mercilus (5 tackles, 2 sacks, forced fumble), bandit Michael Buchanan (1.5 sacks) and tackle Glenn Foster (interception, 1 tackle for loss).
Although Illinois starts only two seniors in the front seven -- Thomas and Trulon Henry, who moved from safety to linebacker to address depth there -- the group is displaying greater maturity in Year 2 under Koenning.
"We're a lot further along than we were last year," defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said, "just knowing the little nuances of the defense. Heck, I was still learning as well. I think I'm a better coach and a better teacher at this point in knowing the scheme, and know the kids are better players because of it."
Gilmore admits the coaches were "a little uptight" when first implementing the Arizona State game plan. But by the middle of the practice week, it began to click with the players.
Could Illinois have executed the same type of plan last year?
"We were still learning a lot of the base stuff," Gilmore said. "We came up with some different plans as well last year, but being a year into it, it's easier to make sideline adjustments and game adjustments as you go along because the kids have a better feel for the defense."
Brown was all over the field Saturday night, factoring into two of Illinois' three takeaways. He hit Osweiler on a blitz, forcing a throw that caromed off of an Arizona State lineman to Foster for an interception.
In the third quarter, he recorded a pick of his own following a deflected pass.
"We showed what we've been thinking all summer," Brown said, "that we can play with anybody in the country, and that we have the best defense in the country. Coming into the season, they had us ranked dead last as a linebacker corps. One of our goals was to go out and prove people wrong."
Although Illinois lost two linebackers to the NFL, its biggest concern was replacing Liuget, the Big Ten's most dominant interior lineman in 2011. The defensive line's performance against Arizona State bodes well for Big Ten play.
"We talk about 'next man in' all the time, whether it be to an injury or graduation or an NFL departure," Gilmore said. "They all have talent. It's a matter of who gets an opportunity to showcase that talent."
Thomas, the graybeard of the defense, is seeing his teammates grasp the opportunities presented to them.
"I'm real confident in those guys," he said. "I know I can depend on them to be where they need to be."
Although the Illini technically were the road team, they staked their claim that day with a 48-27 victory. Afterward, linebacker Martez Wilson, a Chicago native, said Northwestern's slogan bothered him.
"I'm from here," Wilson said. "I also heard it said that they don't recruit the type of player Illinois does. Well, our game plan showed who was Chicago's Big Ten team, and we did a good job proving it."
New Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas could take things one step further.
Thomas told reporters Tuesday in Champaign that he'd like to play home games in Chicago in the coming years, saying, "you need to figure out a way to get in front of these people." Sensing a great branding opportunity in a major city filled with Illinois alumni, Thomas wants to schedule a game in Chicago as long as he has six others at Memorial Stadium.
"If the seventh was here [in Champaign] or in Chicago that would make a lot of sense," Thomas said. "Annually, I don’t know. It has to be the right opponent. It has to make sense. Us going up there by ourselves I think is great but we want to play someone up there that makes sense geographically as well. You can think who some of those players might be."
Northwestern makes sense. So do Iowa and Wisconsin. If Illinois wanted to play a nonconference opponent, Northern Illinois, which will face Wisconsin next week at Chicago's Soldier Field, is a good fit.
Illinois could explore games at Soldier Field or even at Wrigley, a place coach Ron Zook clearly enjoyed despite a field configuration that forced teams to use only one end zone.
I like the idea, especially with the Missouri game no longer on Illinois' schedule. The Illini must protect themselves with enough home games, but they should be looking to increase their presence in Chicago, which has a ton of college football fans despite their many allegiances.
Northwestern has generated more buzz in the city, and there's no reason why Illinois can't boost its profile as well.
Here are 10 items to track as you watch the games.
1. Coaching debuts: After three years of relative stability in the Big Ten coaching ranks, four leading men will debut with new teams Saturday, while Nebraska's Bo Pelini coaches his first game as a member of the conference. Luke Fickell's every move will be closely monitored at Ohio State, while Brady Hoke begins a new chapter at Michigan. Kevin Wilson's Indiana debut takes place at the site of the inaugural Big Ten championship game (Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium), while Minnesota's Jerry Kill draws the toughest first assignment as the Gophers visit No. 25 USC.
3. Penn State's QB audition: Spring practice and fall camp evidently weren't enough time for Penn State to settle on a starting quarterback. Rob Bolden and Matthew McGloin both are expected to play in Saturday's opener against Indiana State. Joe Paterno, who may coach from the press box, didn't seem too concerned about the lack of a starter or the prolonged quarterback competition, but it will be interesting to see how the snaps break down. Bolden likely will get the first opportunity, and Penn State probably wants to settle on its offensive leader before a Week 2 showdown with No. 2 Alabama.
4. Flipping quarters in Columbus: Penn State isn't the only team planning to use multiple quarterbacks in its opener. Ohio State likely will start senior Joe Bauserman on Saturday against Akron, although true freshman Braxton Miller also will see the field. Bauserman boasts more experience and could be the safer choice, although few doubt that Miller is the team's future under center. Akron ranked 99th nationally in total defense last season, so both men should have opportunities to make plays. It presents an interesting situation for a coaching staff that needs to win this season to remain with the Buckeyes.
5. Nebraska's new offense: The Huskers boast what they believe to be a championship-caliber defense, so their season could hinge on the effectiveness of a new offensive scheme. Coordinator Tim Beck wants to give his players more freedom in the system while maintaining plenty of explosiveness. Pelini has stressed the need for efficiency after the Huskers struggled with ball security and penalties last season. Saturday's tune-up against Chattanooga provides the chance for quarterback Taylor Martinez and others to build their confidence in a game before the competition gets tougher.
6. Dan Persa's status: Northwestern has one of the league's tougher season-opening draws at Boston College, and the Wildcats still don't know whether they'll have Persa on the field. The senior is still working his way back from Achilles' tendon surgery and won't be nearly as dangerous on his feet as he was in 2010. The good news is Persa can still attack defenses with his arm, and backup Kain Colter has made strides as a passer during the preseason. Colter will be part of the game plan Saturday, but how much Persa plays, if at all, remains to be seen.
7. Gray driving Gophers' offense: Ever since highly-touted recruit MarQueis Gray committed to Minnesota, Gophers fans have been waiting for this moment. It has taken some time and a detour to the wide receiver position in 2010, but Gray finally will make his first start at quarterback Saturday against USC. He has bulked up to 245 pounds and should be a load for a Trojans defense that has struggled with dual-threat quarterbacks in the past. Gray will run a new offense and needs young players around him to step up, but it will be interesting to see how he fares in a tough environment.
8. TerBush's time: Quarterback Caleb TerBush likely would have been a big factor for Purdue last season had he been academically eligible. The Boilers once again are calling on TerBush, and this time, he's ready to help. TerBush will make his first career start against a tough Middle Tennessee team. Purdue needs a boost after losing its leader Rob Henry to a torn ACL, and TerBush will try to provide one as he plays his first game since 2009.
9. Hawkeyes, Illini fill gaps on defense: The NFL draft took its toll on Iowa's and Illinois' defensive units. The Hawkeyes lost three linemen to the draft -- Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug -- along with standout safety Tyler Sash. Illinois lost dominant tackle Corey Liuget as well as linebackers Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey. Iowa will feature a larger rotation up front this season, while Illinois is looking to younger players like Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown to step up.
10. Emotional opener for Dantonio: It has been a tough week for Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, whose father, Justin, died Sunday at the age of 86. Dantonio is at home in Zanesville, Ohio, for his father's funeral Thursday but will be back for Michigan State's season opener Friday against Youngstown State. It should be an emotional night for Dantonio, and expect Michigan State's players to rally around their coach, much like they did last year when he went through some health issues.
OFFENSE: Donovonn Young, RB, freshman, 6-0, 215
Young and classmate Josh Ferguson have generated plenty of buzz during preseason practice. Not only have they pushed No. 1 back Jason Ford, but they've put themselves in position to rack up carries this fall. Young could be the total package of size, speed and power. Coach Ron Zook joked that it's too early to start the Heisman campaign, but Young impressed everyone who watched the recent workouts in Rantoul, Ill. The Illini will use multiple backs and he'll spell Ford at times this fall. Need another reason to like Young? His jersey number -- 5. The last two Illini players to wear it: star running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure.
DEFENSE: Ralph Cooper, LB, freshman, 6-1, 230
There's an opportunity for young linebackers like Cooper, as Illinois must replace two players -- Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey -- selected in April's NFL draft. Ian Thomas will be the starter at middle linebacker, but Cooper has looked good during camp and will be part of the rotation in the defensive midsection. He boasts good size and speed and should help Illinois stuff the run. The Illini had the Big Ten's No. 4 rushing defense in 2010, but must replace three NFL draft picks.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Justin Duvernois, P, freshman, 6-1, 190
Illinois loses first-team All-Big Ten selection Anthony Santella and will turn to Duvernois, who has a big leg and hails from one of the nation's top high school programs (St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida). Duvernois became the top option after Matt Eller left the team. Consistency will be a focal point for Duvernois, but he has the ability to be successful at this level.
More Fresh Faces
Biggest reason for hope: QB Nathan Scheelhaase
Scheelhaase turned in a very impressive freshman season and ended it on a high note against Baylor in the Texas Bowl. By all accounts, he has continued to make strides during the winter and spring, particularly as a passer. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino has seen Scheelhaase making quicker decisions and getting the ball out faster to his receivers. Scheelhaase's ability as a runner is obvious, and Illniois likely will lean on him more after losing Mikel Leshoure to the NFL. There are some question marks at both running back and receiver, but the offensive line looks very solid. If Scheelhaase has time, he should be able to hurt defenses with both his arm and his legs.
Biggest reason for concern: Big holes in defensive front seven
Illinois loses a first-round draft pick in defensive tackle Corey Liuget and a third-round pick in linebacker Martez Wilson, not to mention valuable players like linebacker Nate Bussey and defensive end Clay Nurse. There are a lot of holes to fill, and Illinois needs players like Ian Thomas, Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown to take their games to the next level. The secondary should be a strength, but defenses need to be led by the front seven and coordinator Vic Koenning spent much of spring practice looking for leadership. Illinois likely won't have a player as disruptive as Liuget on the interior, so it will take more of a collective effort from a defense that made strides last season but also had some inconsistent play.
More Hope and Concern
At the risk of playing catchup to the SEC -- something Big Ten folks hate to do -- I think it's a good idea. Who are the Big Ten's top dark horse candidates for 2011?
To be clear, a dark horse has to be a team not considered by most folks to be on the league championship radar entering the season. The 2010 Michigan State team probably qualifies, although those who really studied the Spartans' personnel -- like yours truly -- weren't surprised by their run to a Big Ten championship. The Illinois team that made the 2008 Rose Bowl following back-to-back 2-win seasons is a better example of a dark horse.
Let's take a look at three teams that could fit the description this fall. One common theme among them: a favorable schedule.
2010 record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten, beat Baylor in Texas Bowl)
I recently was on a radio show in Champaign and the hosts justifiably asked me about listing Illinois at No. 9 in my post-spring power rankings. As I told them, Illinois definitely has the potential to make a significant move up the rankings before the season ends. In fact, I'd be a little surprised if they remained at No. 9 The team has some confidence coming off of a bowl victory, and talent never has been the issue for Illinois during coach Ron Zook's tenure. Illinois boasts a talented quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase and one of the Big Ten's best offensive lines, anchored by tackle Jeff Allen. There are question marks on defense after the unit lost first-round pick Corey Liuget and second-round pick Martez Wilson, but I really like what the Illini return in the secondary. If coordinator Vic Koenning pulls the right strings this fall, the defense should be fine. The schedule also favors Illinois, which opens with five consecutive home games and plays eight contests at Memorial Stadium.
2010 record: 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten, lost to Mississippi State in Gator Bowl)
Although Michigan increased its wins total in each of the past two seasons, few preseason prognosticators will place the Wolverines in the Big Ten's upper half entering the season. There are quite a few question marks as new coach Brady Hoke and his assistants install new systems on both sides of the ball. The defense should improve under coordinator Greg Mattison, especially up front and if the secondary gets better luck with injuries. And if the offense can maintain some of its explosiveness -- hello, Denard Robinson -- and limit turnovers against Big Ten competition, Michigan has a real chance to make noise in the Legends division. Like Illinois, the Wolverines also could get off to a fast start as they play their first five games at the Big House.
2010 record: 8-5 (4-4 Big Ten, beat Missouri in the Insight Bowl)
This is a role in which Iowa seems to thrive. The Hawkeyes fell short of expectations in 2010, and they might be dismissed by some after losing so many standout players. Iowa had three defensive linemen selected in the NFL draft -- Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug -- and also must replace its starting quarterback, top two safeties, leading rusher and a record-setting receiver. But the Hawkeyes have some nice building blocks, starting with one of the league's best offensive lines. Quarterback James Vandenberg is no stranger to the spotlight, and while Iowa needs to find more depth at running back, Marcus Coker looks like the real deal. There are some holes to fill in the defensive front seven, but Iowa typically finds ways to get it done on D. Like the other two dark horses listed, Iowa also could benefit from its schedule. Iowa plays three of the top Legends division teams -- Michigan State, Northwestern and Michigan -- at Kinnick Stadium.
Although few folks projected Michigan State to win 11 games in 2010, the Spartans probably weren't the league’s biggest surprise last season. Illinois entered the fall with a coach on the hot seat (Ron Zook), a freshman quarterback (Nathan Scheelhaase), two new coordinators (Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning) and countless questions. The Illini ended up winning their first bowl game since 1999.
While Illinois might not be as big of a surprise team this year, it is certainly in the mix after losing standout players like defensive tackle Corey Liuget, linebacker Martez Wilson and running back Mikel Leshoure. Northwestern has made three consecutive bowl games for the first time in team history, but the Wildcats could qualify as a surprise if they were to, say, win the Legends division.
Minnesota, Indiana and Purdue were the only Big Ten teams not to qualify for bowls in 2010. The Gophers and Hoosiers have new coaches, while Purdue hopes to end a three-year bowl drought. All three teams have a chance to surprise some folks in 2010.
It's your turn to weigh in on the Big Ten's surprise team in 2011.
The race for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year isn't easy to forecast. The league loses most of its elite defenders, including five linemen selected in the first round of last month's NFL draft. A former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year -- Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones -- also departs along and four underclassmen who would factor into this year's race -- Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt, Illinois DT Corey Liuget, Illinois LB Martez Wilson and Iowa S Tyler Sash -- also are NFL bound. Eight Big Ten squads lose their leading tacklers from 2010.
So who's left? Nebraska hasn't played a game as a Big Ten member, but the Huskers might have the top two choices for Defensive Player of the Year. Defensive tackle Jared Crick and linebacker Lavonte David both earned second-team All-America honors in 2010 and are poised for big senior seasons. Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy also is very much on the NFL draft radar for 2012, and several Big Ten defensive backs could contend for the award, including dynamic Purdue sophomore cornerback Ricardo Allen. The Big Ten hasn't had a defensive back win the award since Ohio State safety Mike Doss in 2002, but that could change this fall.
It's your turn to weigh in on the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year field.
The Big Ten had six players record 100 or more tackles in 2010: Michigan linebacker Jonas Mouton (117), Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs (116), Penn State linebacker Chris Colasanti (112), Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson (112), Northwestern safety Brian Peters (107) and Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones (106). Seven Big Ten defenders reached the 100-tackle mark in 2010, led by Jones (154) and Iowa linebacker Pat Angerer (146).
Let's be clear that tackles don't mean everything, and there have been some mediocre defenders who end up high on the tackles charts. I've also noticed that some of the Big Ten's historically elite defenses, like Ohio State, rarely have players approach 100 tackles. This can be attributed in part to good team defense and also to being on the field for fewer plays. So if a player from your favorite team doesn't appear below, it might not be a bad thing.
Still, 100 tackles is a milestone and several Big Ten players should approach it.
Here are the top candidates:
1. Nebraska LB Lavonte David: He set a team single-season record for tackles in 2010 and should be able to surpass 100 stops for the second consecutive year. David recorded 10 tackles or more in eight contests in 2010 and had 15 stops or more three times. It'll be interesting to see how he adjusts to Big Ten offenses, but he's too good not to be around the ball.
2. Northwestern S Brian Peters: I'm not sure Northwestern wants to have a safety eclipse 100 tackles again, but Peters once again could be the team's go-to tackler as it loses two multiyear starters at linebacker. He recorded 10 tackles or more in six games last fall.
3. Penn State LB Michael Mauti: Sure, he only had 67 tackles last fall, but Mauti is poised for a breakout season if he can stay healthy. Mauti has a chance to put up Posluszny/Connor tackle numbers as he continues to mature. Penn State will be a more linebacker-driven defense this fall, and several players -- Mauti, Nathan Stupar, Gerald Hodges -- could challenge for 100 tackles.
4. Iowa S/CB Micah Hyde: Hyde had 82 tackles from the cornerback spot in 2010 and should see that number increase if he plays more safety this fall. Although an Iowa linebacker like James Morris certainly could climb up the tackles chart this fall, Hyde seems to have a knack for being around the football.
5. Purdue S Logan Link: After leading the team with 91 tackles in 2010, Link is poised for another productive season. Purdue has some question marks in the seven front seven, and it will rely on Link and other defensive backs to move down and make plays against the run.
6. Indiana LB Jeff Thomas: Thomas finished last season with 82 tackles, five shy of team leader Tyler Replogle. As Replogle departs, Thomas will move into a more featured role at linebacker and should definitely be in the mix for 100 tackles or more. Indiana's defense also could spend a lot of time on the field this fall, giving Thomas plenty of tackle opportunities.
Also keep an eye on the following players:
- Michigan LB Kenny Demens and S Jordan Kovacs
- Iowa LB James Morris
- One of Michigan State's LBs (Chris Norman, Max Bullough, TyQuan Hammock)
- Illinois LB Ian Thomas
- Minnesota LBs Gary Tinsley or Mike Rallis
2010 overall record: 7-6
2010 conference record: 4-4 (T-4th)
Offense: 7; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1
QB Nathan Scheelhaase, LT Jeff Allen, WR A.J. Jenkins, C Graham Pocic, CB Tavon Wilson, S Trulon Henry, LB Ian Thomas, DT Akeem Spence, K Derek Dimke
RB Mikel Leshoure, G Hugh Thornton, T Ryan Palmer, DT Corey Liuget, LB Martez Wilson, LB Nate Bussey, DE Clay Nurse, P Anthony Santella
2010 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Mikel Leshoure (1,697 yards)
Passing: Nathan Scheelhaase* (1,825 yards)
Receiving: A.J. Jenkins* (746 yards)
Tackles: Martez Wilson (112)
Sacks: Corey Liuget (4.5)
Interceptions: Trulon Henry* (3)
1. Scheelhaase takes next step: Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino seemed extremely pleased with the way quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase built on his first season as the starting quarterback. Scheelhaase proved himself as a runner last season, but he upgraded his passing skills this spring, displaying a quicker release and better decision-making. The redshirt sophomore should be a dangerous dual-threat signal-caller this fall.
2. Secondary steps up: Illinois must replace several standouts in the defensive front seven, but it should be very solid in the secondary this season. Terry Hawthorne, Justin Green and Tavon Wilson were among the defensive backs who stood out in spring ball. Illinois boasts depth at both safety and cornerback, as Supo Sanni returns from injury and Trulon Henry enters his second year as a starter.
3. Lankford provides depth: Top receiver A.J. Jenkins and projected contributor Darius Millines both missed spring practice after offseason surgeries, so the coaches were looking for options at wideout. Sophomore Ryan Lankford answered the bell with a very impressive spring, showing good hands and run-after-catch ability. Lankford capped the session with five receptions for 64 yards in the spring game.
1. Running back: Injuries prevented the coaches from getting much of a read on the group this spring. Senior Jason Ford, a likely successor to Mikel Leshoure, missed most of the spring with a bruised knee, and Petrino said he needs to see more from Ford this summer. Troy Pollard had some good moments before suffering a concussion in a scrimmage. The starting job is open heading into the fall, and there's opportunity for an incoming freshman like Donovonn Young to make a splash.
2. Linebacker leadership: Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning didn't sound too pleased with the linebackers midway through the spring, although the group picked up its play toward the end. Illinois still must replace two productive players (Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey) and identify leadership at the position. Senior Ian Thomas seems like the obvious choice to take the reins, while talented younger linebackers like Jonathan Brown, Houston Bates and Brandon Denmark must continue to make progress.
3. Punter: Illinois loses a field-position weapon in Anthony Santella, who ranked 14th nationally in punting average (44.8 ypp) and placed 19 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line in 2010. Backup kicker Matt Eller worked as a punter this spring and Lankford auditioned as a rugby punter, but Illinois likely will see what incoming freshman Justin DuVernois can do before settling on a starter.