Chicago Colleges: Justin DuVernois

Season report card: Illinois

December, 18, 2012
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.

Offense: F

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.

Defense: D-minus

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.

Overall: F

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.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

November, 21, 2011
Saw you so much clearer, once you were in my rear-view mirror.

Team of the week: Michigan. The Wolverines flexed their muscles and blew out Nebraska 45-17 in their best performance and arguably biggest win of the season. Michigan is now the Big Ten's best hope for an at-large BCS bid. Michigan State sure liked what happened in Ann Arbor this week, too.

Game of the week: Penn State 20, Ohio State 14. Ultimately, this game had no bearing on the Big Ten title race, but try telling these two teams that. In a week without many thrillers, the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes played an old-school, physical game that featured no second-half points but plenty of hold-your-breath moments. Given the backdrop of what Penn State had been dealing with back home, it was far from meaningless.

[+] EnlargeJustin DuVernois
Bradley Leeb/US PresswireIllini punter Justin DuVernois is tackled by Wisconsin's Conor O'Neill after a game-changing fumbled snap Saturday.
Biggest play: Illinois led Wisconsin 14-0 in the second quarter when punter Justin Duvernois dropped the ball after catching the snap. The Badgers' Conor O'Neill tackled him at the 2-yard line to set up a Montee Ball touchdown run and finally give Wisconsin some momentum. Who knows how the game would have unfolded differently had the Illini taken a 17-0 lead into half instead of 17-7. And for a team that had special-teams breakdowns in losses to Michigan State and Ohio State, it was good for Wisconsin to get one back in the kicking game.

Best call: Lions turning into Wildcats. Interim coach Tom Bradley and his staff decided to use Curtis Drake and Bill Belton in the Wildcat formation against Ohio State, something Penn State hadn't shown much of all season. By the time the Buckeyes adjusted to it, Penn State had piled up 254 yards and 20 points in the first half. The defense did the rest in the second half. Question: Would the Nittany Lions have used that kind of creativity if Joe Paterno was still the head coach?

Toughest call: Robert Marve's touchdown-no-fumble near the end of the Purdue-Iowa game. The Boilers quarterback scrambled and dived for the end zone with 1:27 left in the game, losing the ball just as he hit the pylon. The officials on the field ruled it a touchdown, which would have cut the lead to 31-27 with an extra point giving Purdue a chance to get within a field goal. But after a review, the play was ruled a lost fumble in the end zone, which gave the ball to Iowa and basically ended the game.

Boilermakers coach Danny Hope brought a still picture of the play to his Sunday media briefing, saying it showed Marve's hand hitting the pylon and the ball out of bounds. Other angles and replays seemed to validate the replay officials' ruling. You can watch the video of it here at the 1:40 mark. Either way, Purdue simply made too many mistakes in the game to be whining about one call, no matter how crucial it was.

Big Men on Campus (Offense): Wisconsin's Ball and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Ball had career highs in rushes (38) and yards (224) and scored three more touchdowns, becoming just the fifth player in FBS history to reach 30 touchdowns in a season. Robinson bounced back from a couple of rough outings to account for four touchdowns and 263 total yards of offense against Nebraska. He has now won six Big Ten player of the week honors, third-most in league history.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland. The sophomore made a career-high 16 tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles against Illinois. His second forced fumble gave the Badgers a short field to set up their second touchdown, and he helped lead a defensive effort that shut out the Illini in the second half and forced four turnovers. A special shout out also goes to Northwestern's Brian Peters, who forced and recovered a fumble and made an interception despite wearing a cast on one arm against Minnesota.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Penn State's Anthony Fera. He made a 43-yard field goal and a 46-yarder at the end of the first half to account for the margin of victory in the Nittany Lions' 20-14 win against Ohio State. He also had three punts downed inside the 20-yard line, including one on the 3-yard line. How good has Fera been this season? This is third Big Ten weekly honor of the season.

Strangest moment: It's not often you see an offensive guard taking a handoff and running a sweep. But Michigan State's Joel Foreman did just that on Saturday in a nice gesture from Mark Dantonio.

The Spartans were up 48-3 on Indiana when Foreman lined up at tight end and came around the left side for a three-yard gain. Dantonio said he thought of the idea in practice Thursday as a way to honor Foreman, a fifth-year senior who has started 46 career games at left guard.

"That was for every big guy out there who ever wanted to run the ball," Foreman told reporters. "I'm averaging three yards a carry, broken tackle. I think that's more than [quarterback] Kirk [Cousins] has, so I'm doing all right."

It was a particularly appropriate way to end the home season for Foreman, who let cancer survivor Arthur Ray Jr. begin the game in his place in the season opener despite his consecutive starts streak. After Foreman's run, he jogged to midfield with the ball under his arm, saluted and then came out of the game. Ray was one of the first players to greet him.

"He got the game ball for that," Dantonio said of Foreman. "He took it, as a matter of fact."