Chicago Colleges: Vic Koenning

Reports: Illini's Keith Gilmore heads to UNC

January, 27, 2013
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Illinois is losing one of the Big Ten's top assistants in defensive-line coach Keith Gilmore.

Rivals.com and others reported Saturday that Gilmore is leaving Illinois to join North Carolina's staff in the same capacity. He'll be reunited with North Carolina defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, with whom he worked at Illinois from 2009-2011. Gilmore was the only assistant Illini head coach Tim Beckman had retained from the previous staff -- and for good reason.

He mentored two NFL first-round draft picks in defensive tackle Corey Liuget and defensive end Whitney Mercilus. Two of his linemen, tackle Akeem Spence and end Michael Buchanan, are expected to be drafted in April. Although Illinois certainly has had its issues the past two seasons, defensive line hasn't been one of them. Gilmore is a significant loss for Beckman's staff.

It's hard to blame Gilmore for leaving as Beckman faces potentially a make-or-break season in 2013. Things are much more stable at UNC, and Gilmore's familiarity with Koenning makes him a good fit in Chapel Hill.

Illinois will have at least three new assistants in 2013 after bringing in new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and new offensive-line coach Jim Bridge.

Defensive line has been the Big Ten's strongest position in recent years. The league has lost two respected D-line coaches this weekend after Michigan State announced Friday that it's cutting ties with Ted Gill.

Best Case/Worst Case: Illinois

August, 13, 2012
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Now that the season is just around the corner, it's time to take our annual look at the best- and worst-case scenarios for each Big Ten team.

Last year, we did this in video form, but you'll have to read words this time around. We'll go in alphabetical order in this series, and try to have a little fun along the way. First up is Illinois.

Best Case

It's Beck-mania! The Illini have long been seen as underachievers, but first-year coach Tim Beckman is able to wring the best out of the talent Ron Zook collected in Champaign. Beckman inherited a strong defense that turns things up a notch in 2012, and his spread system is the cure to what ailed the offense in the second half of 2011. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase fully embraces the spread, using his legs and arm to become one of the Big Ten's most dynamic playmakers. The skill position question marks become answers as Josh Ferguson, Donovonn Young and Darius Millines all make the leap. Defensive end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Jonathan Brown battle for the national lead in sacks, while defensive tackle Akeem Spence plays up to his first-round potential.

The Illini cruise through the nonconference schedule, waxing another first-year coach at a major program by winning handily at Arizona State. They beat Penn State by two touchdowns in the Big Ten opener, after which several Nittany Lions players are seen talking to Illinois assistants about a possible 2013 transfer. Illinois loses at Wisconsin the following week but pulls a stunner in Ann Arbor by catching Michigan looking ahead to the Michigan State game. It loses at Ohio State on Nov. 3, but ends the season with a four-touchdown win at Northwestern as Rahm Emanuel presents Beckman a key to the city. Since Wisconsin finishes with three losses, the Illini clinch the title in the probation-saddled Leaders Division. Hungry Illinois fans flock to Indianapolis, where their team knocks off Michigan a second time to advance to the Rose Bowl. Just like that, it's a football school again.

Worst Case

They fired Ron Zook for this? Beckman finds that he's not in Toledo anymore, as his transition to the Big Ten is a rough one. While the defense is solid, it misses Whitney Mercilus and Vic Koenning more than anyone realized. The spread system is an odd fit for a team that lacks many playmakers at receiver or running back, and neither Scheelhaase nor Reilly O'Toole is fully able to master it in a seesaw quarterback competition. Much like the second half of last year, Illinois simply can't score, and its special-teams play hasn't improved much.

The Beckman era gets off to a shaky start when Western Michigan -- which played a close game in Champaign a year ago -- springs the upset in the opener. The Illini are 0-2 after a loss at Arizona State. They rebound to win the next two but are crushed at home by a Penn State team that's angry about all those Illini assistants sniffing around State College this summer. That begins a spiral of losing, as the next two games are blowouts on the road at Wisconsin and Michigan. Illinois beats Indiana but falls at Ohio State, drops another home game to Purdue and ends the year getting pushed around by resurgent Northwestern. The Wildcats somehow win the Big Ten and prompt Chicago to dye the river purple. Meanwhile, the Illini sit at home after a 4-8 season, wondering what the future holds.

Spring game preview: Illinois

April, 13, 2012
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Seven Big Ten teams hold their spring games Saturday, and we're taking a closer look at each one of them.

Next up: The annual Orange and Blue Spring Game at Illinois. Here are all the vitals:

When: 3 p.m. ET (2 p.m. local time), Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium

Admission: Free. All seating will be in the east stands. Free parking is available in the lots surrounding the stadium and Assembly Hall.

TV: The game will be streamed live on both BTN2Go and the Big Ten Digital Network. The Big Ten Network will broadcast the game on tape-delay at 7 p.m. ET Sunday.

Weather forecast: Partly cloudy with scattered thunderstorms possible, temperatures between 66-76 degrees, 50 percent chance of rain, winds at 19-20 mph.

What to watch for: Illinois should have one of the more entertaining spring games in the Big Ten. New head coach Tim Beckman said players will approach it "as if it's a real game." The team's seniors were divided into two groups and drafted teams earlier this week. The game will be played with a normal clock in the first half and a running clock in the second half (except if the game is close in the final two minutes). Another unique tidbit: Beckman will go into the stands and select Illinois students to call two plays per half for both teams.

Beckman wants to put on a show for the fans, who should get a decent sense of the new systems Illinois is using on both sides of the ball. The Illini are employing an up-tempo spread attack on offense, and it will be interesting to see how quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole are adjusting. There are depth issues at both wide receiver and running back, and Illinois is bolstering the spots with players such as Miles Osei, a reserve quarterback who could see time at both receiver and running back Saturday, and starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who will see time at receiver. Another defensive back, Justin Green, is being used as a running back. Top wideout Darius Millines (foot) is out, so plenty of others will have opportunities to make plays.

The changes aren't as dramatic on defense, as coordinator Tim Banks uses a similar scheme to his predecessor, Vic Koenning. Illinois looks very strong in the defensive front seven, and coaches have praised players such as Michael Buchanan, Jonathan Brown and Justin Staples. Safeties Supo Sanni and Steve Hull, both projected starters, are out for the game.

Illinois' Jonathan Brown raises the bar

March, 28, 2012
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Jonathan Brown's watershed moment as a football player won't come if he earns All-Big Ten honors, if he's named an All-American, or if he leads Illinois in tackles.

Brown won't know he has arrived until his stepfather has no critiques for him after games.

He might be waiting a while.

His stepfather, Richard Kinley, played defensive end and linebacker at Middle Tennessee and helped mold him as a player, particularly during grueling backyard workouts at their home in Memphis.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Brown
Jerry Lai/US PresswireDespite coming off a solid season last year, Illinois LB Jonathan Brown has set his goals high for 2012.
"My stepdad instilled it in me," Brown told ESPN.com. "You have to realize what the game is worth."

Brown has learned to value the game, and Kinley's opinions, which are offered after every contest. Even after Brown's coming-out party in Illinois' defense-driven win against Arizona State last year -- Brown recorded 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception en route to earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors -- Kinley had a few notes for his stepson.

The 6-1, 235-pound Brown flourished in Vic Koenning's assertive defense last fall, leading Illinois with 108 tackles. Just a true sophomore, he finished second in the Big Ten in tackles for loss with 19.5, trailing only his teammate Whitney Mercilus (22.5), and tallied six sacks, a forced fumble, two fumbles recovered and four pass breakups. Few Big Ten linebackers put up more impressive numbers.

But the 2011 season wasn't all positive for Brown and his Illini teammates, who got off to a team-record 6-0 start before dropping their next six games. Two weeks after the Arizona State triumph, cameras spotted Brown kneeing Northwestern offensive lineman Patrick Ward in the groin following a play in Illinois' victory. The infraction led to a one-game suspension.

Despite Brown's terrific season, when you Google his name, eight of the first 10 entries are about his personal foul in the Northwestern game.

"It was a very disappointing mistake," Brown said. "That was me being young, not thinking and being caught up in the moment. It brought my focus into what is really going on. ... It's still a maturing process."

We shouldn't see similar missteps from Brown going forward, but he's not about to downshift how he plays the game, either. He moved from outside linebacker to middle linebacker this spring, as Illinois' new coaching staff heightens his leadership role on the defense.

Tim Banks' defensive scheme is similar to what Koenning ran, although the linebackers are dropping into coverage a little more.

Brown isn't shy about his ability, acknowledging he's "blessed with a lot of talent." His father, Rod, played linebacker at Memphis and coached in high school and in the Arena2 league.

But perhaps Brown's strongest attribute is his drive.

"In football, you've got to play with a passion," he said. "If you play with that passion, you can't be stopped."

Despite not starting as a freshman in 2010, Brown set three goals for his sophomore season: be All-Big Ten, be an All-American and lead the team in tackles. He went 2-for-3, earning second-team all-conference honors from the media.

"I have big goals," he said. "If you don't set the bar high, you'll never reach the bar."

How are Brown's goals for 2012?

He paused and smiled.

"Bigger."

Instant analysis: Illinois 20, UCLA 14

December, 31, 2011
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UCLA needed a special NCAA waiver just to get into a bowl game. Illinois lost its final six games and had assistants threatening to boycott this game. Is it any wonder that the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl was, shall we say, a little ragged?

How the game was won: The Illinois offense disappeared over the second half of the season and didn't do a whole lot in this one, either. But the team's defense remained stout throughout the seaosn and was inspired to play hard for interim coach Vic Koenning, their former defensive coordinator. The Illini defense came up with a score, sacked UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince five times and allowed just 220 total yards. The Bruins' only points came when they got a short field in the first half and when they connected on a bomb with 29 seconds left and Illinois already starting to celebrate. Defense wins minor bowl championships.

Turning point: UCLA led 7-3 and the Illinois offense was completely stagnant late in the third quarter. That's when the Bruins provided a gift. Prince's sideline pass was picked off by cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who had nothing but open field in front of him as he ran it in for the 39-yard touchdown. Hawthorne never took his eyes off the quarterback, and Prince misread the coverage. That pick-six sapped the spirits of the Bruins and loosened things up for the Illini.

Player of the game: Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. His passing numbers weren't terribly impressive (18-for-30, 189 yards, one touchdown) and he struggled early on. But Scheelhaase took on the brunt of the running game with leading rusher Jason Ford suspended for this game, finishing with 110 yards on 22 carries. He also had a nine-yard catch, giving him more total yards than UCLA's entire offense.

Stat of the game: Thanks in large part to the sacks, Illinois outrushed UCLA 179-19.

Record performance: Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus was credited with 1.5 sacks, giving him a nation's best 16 this season. That tied the school record set by Simeon Rice. He got in on his second sack despite being held on the play. Mercilus was one of the most improved players in the nation this season and will almost certainly skip his senior year to enter the NFL Draft.

Strangest stat: UCLA finishes the season with eight losses, yet the Bruins played in a bowl game. It might be a while before we see that happen again.

Unsung hero: Illinois' Ryan Lankford. He averaged 45.6 yards on five punts, with two downed inside the 20. He also had three catches for 24 yards. Now that's versatility.

Best call: Midway through the fourth quarter, UCLA came after Scheelhaase on a blitz. But Illinois had the exact right call on: a slant pass to A.J. Jenkins. The one guy the Bruins couldn't leave open caught a short strike from Scheelhaase and glided in untouched for a 60-yard touchdown. The score became crucial when UCLA tacked on that touchdown in the final minute.

What it means: Not much of anything. Both programs will wake up on New Year's Day with new head coaches -- Jim Mora Jr. for UCLA, Tim Beckman for Illinois. So both teams will mostly have a blank slate, and they'd rather forget most of the 2011 season, anyway. Beckman will drastically change the offense to a spread, and he has to be happy to see Scheelhaase turn in a confidence-building bowl performance. Beckman will need to keep the defense playing at this level without Koenning. Mora needs to improve the overall toughness of the underachieving Bruins and change the attitude around the program .

Beckman will have to win over Illini fans

December, 9, 2011
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Tim BeckmanAndrew Weber/US Presswire Tim Beckman must change the culture at Illinois and bring consistency to the program.
The next time a Big Ten fan base gets excited about a MAC coach likely will be the first.

Big Ten fans want big names, even if they're more hyped than proven. There's a sense that Big Ten programs should be able to reach further than the MAC, even though the MAC has produced some excellent major-conference coaches, many of whom have done well in the Big Ten. Some are known only by their first names: Woody, Bo and Ara. All three succeeded at Big Ten programs after coming from a MAC school, Miami (Ohio).

Still, coaching searches are often the time when fan perception meets program reality. It happened this week at Illinois.

The rumor mill began buzzing Tuesday that Illinois was close to a deal with Houston coach Kevin Sumlin. Regarded as a rising star in coaching, Sumlin is one of those names that gets fans excited, even if his track record doesn't quite match the hype around him. He runs an exciting offense at Houston, led by quarterback Case Keenum. He's a Big Ten guy (Purdue product) who had great success as a Big 12 assistant. Perhaps most important, he's wanted by others.

I never bought the Sumlin-to-Illinois talk. With a vacancy at Texas A&M, it makes too much sense for Sumlin to eventually move up the road to College Station. Illinois wanted him, but he didn't want Illinois. Predictably, the Sumlin buzz died down and Toledo's Tim Beckman became the target for Illinois first-year athletic director Mike Thomas.

Beckman will be introduced as Illinois' coach at a 4 p.m. ET news conference Friday in Champaign, Ill. He comes to the Illini after recording a 21-16 record in three seasons with Toledo.

There's a lot to like about Beckman. He's an Ohio native who knows the Big Ten and has recruited well, particularly in his home state. He has worked for successful programs (Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Bowling Green) and for successful head coaches (Mike Gundy, Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer). He took over a Toledo program dealing with a point-shaving scandal and led the Rockets to 8-win seasons in each of the past two years. He's known as a tireless worker with a fiery personality.

I have a feeling Illinois fans will feel better about the hire after Friday's news conference.

But some still will only see "MAC coach." And that's fine. Beckman will have to win them over by winning. If he mirrors what former Toledo coach Gary Pinkel has done at Missouri, or what former Toledo coach Nick Saban did at Michigan State, or what Bo, Woody and Ara did at Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern, respectively, no one will remember where he came from.

When Thomas announced Ron Zook's firing, he noted that his track record shows he hires coaches with previous experience leading programs. He didn't add that he hires them from the MAC, as he brought both Brian Kelly and Butch Jones to Cincinnati from Central Michigan. Kelly had historic success at Cincinnati before moving onto Notre Dame, while Jones has the Bearcats at 9-3 this season. The Beckman hire follows the pattern for Thomas, who also reportedly expressed interest in two other MAC head-coaches: Eastern Michigan's Ron English and Temple's Steve Addazio.

If Beckman succeeds at Illinois, Thomas will be hailed as strong evaluator of under-the-radar coaches. If Beckman fails, Thomas will be seen as an AD who couldn't reel in the big fish. While Illinois reportedly was willing to spend big bucks for Sumlin, Beckman likely comes as a bargain, as he made $400,000 at Toledo.

Beckman inherits some talent at Illinois. Talent never was the problem for Zook, who recruited well. But Beckman will need to develop players better than his predecessor.

There are some potential concerns with Beckman, namely that he's a defensive coach whose defenses didn't exactly rank among the nation's best.

Here's a look:

2011 (Toledo): 76th in total defense, 89th in scoring defense
2010 (Toledo): 56th in total defense, 73rd in scoring defense
2009 (Toledo): 95th in total defense, 116th in scoring defense
2008 (Oklahoma State): 93rd in total defense, 73rd in scoring defense
2007 (Oklahoma State): 101st in total defense, 79th in scoring defense

To be fair, fielding a decent defense in the MAC is no easy task. But Toledo also surrendered 63 points in back-to-back games, including a 63-60 loss to Northern Illinois in which Beckman's timeout decisions came under heavy scrutiny.

Beckman could win points with many Illini fans by retaining Vic Koenning as his defensive coordinator. Koenning has done a masterful job with Illinois' defense, which boasts an All-American in defensive end Whitney Mercilus and ranked No. 7 nationally in yards allowed, No. 4 against the pass, No. 5 in tackles for loss and No. 9 in sacks. Whether their defensive philosophies match remains to be seen, but Beckman certainly should consider keeping Koenning.

His bigger task will be establishing consistency with an Illinois program that hasn't seen nearly enough in the past two decades. Although Illinois has reached back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1991-92, the team has too often been a tease, arguably never more so than this season when it started 6-0 and finished 0-6. The talent has been in Champaign, but Illinois has been too fragile of a team. Beckman must change the culture.

Some coaches create buzz just by showing up (see: Meyer, Urban). Others create it by what they do on the field.

Beckman must show he can do the latter at Illinois.

Notes from Tim Beckman's introduction

December, 9, 2011
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Illinois officially introduced former Toledo coach Tim Beckman as its new football head coach this afternoon. Athletic director Mike Thomas described Beckman as a "guy that makes caffeine nervous" because of his energy and motor, and Beckman did not disappoint. He spoke in a near-shout and was very enthusiastic about becoming the new Illini coach. Of course, energy wasn't really the problem with the last guy.

Some other notes and quotes from the news conference:
  • Thomas said Beckman was given a five-year contract worth $9 million in guaranteed compensation. That's a hefty raise from Beckman's $400,000 salary at Toledo, but it's still relatively cheap by Big Ten standards. Illinois appeared willing to pay when it reportedly went after coaches like Houston's Kevin Sumlin, but it didn't have to break the bank for Beckman.
  • Though Beckman doesn't have many ties to Illinois and didn't recruit the area much at Toledo, he did a nice job of throwing in references to Dick Butkus and Red Grange. And he noted that most of his Toledo players were from Ohio, and he would try to continue the practice of having many local players on the roster. He said Chicago and St. Louis in particular would be huge areas for his program. "We're going to recruit this area as hard as anyone has ever recruited this area before," he said. "You not only gain a football talent, you also gain a person who can fit into this program."
  • Beckman might not have history with Illinois, but he does with the Big Ten. His father coached at Iowa among many other stops, and Beckman has spent most of his life in the Midwest. When asked how long he'd wanted to be a Big Ten head coach, he put his hand a couple feet off the ground and said, "Since I was about this high. ... I've always cherished Big Ten football. It was a dream. Now I have the opportunity to live that dream."
  • He did not make any announcements on staff hirings, but Beckman praised his Toledo assistants and said he'd like to bring as many of them to Champaign as possible. He said he would meet with all the current Illinois coaches on staff in the next two days. As to whether he might keep defensive coordinator and interim head coach Vic Koenning, Beckman said Koenning has done a great job but he has not met him yet.
  • Thomas said Beckman has "a little bit of a swagger to him," which he likes. He said Beckman "fits Illinois in so many ways." Thomas talked to Jim Tressel, one of Beckman's old bosses, and heard high praise about him.
  • Beckman promised a high-energy team. "As you can tell by the way I am, we're going to be intense," he said. He also promised that alumni would be proud of the image that the team presents to the community.
  • Illinois will play Ohio State, leading to Beckman facing a coach he once worked for, Urban Meyer: "Can't wait," he said. "Urban and I are great, great friends. We like competing against each other." Beckman also borrowed a line Meyer used at his news conference last month when talking about Illinois: "It's not broken."
  • Beckman will go to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, but only as a spectator. He said his job now is to recruit. That makes two Big Ten head coaches who are employed but are only recruiting right now while their teams prepare for bowls.
  • Beckman wore an Illini-colored orange tie. He said he bought it on Thursday, because at Toledo he had the team burn everything they had that was orange, the color of the Rockets' main rival, Bowling Green. He said he only referred to Bowling Green as the "team down south" and now will only call Northwestern "the team up north." "You'll never see me wearing purple," he said.
  • Thomas said he talked to both head coaches and assistants during his search, but at the end he thought the program needed someone familiar with being a CEO. He said he gauged what people thought of the Illini program while talking to candidates and still believes the team can win championships there. "We're nowhere near our ceiling," he said.

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

December, 5, 2011
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Illinois Fighting Illini (6-6) vs. UCLA Bruins (6-7)

Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Illinois take from Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett: A bowl game is a San Francisco treat for Illinois, which lost its final six games of the season and fired head coach Ron Zook.

The Illini secured bowl eligibility on Oct. 8, beating Indiana to improve to 6-0 and move into the top 20 of the polls. From there came a stunning free fall, thanks in large part to an offense that forgot how to move the ball; Illinois scored just 66 total points in its final six games after averaging nearly 30 in the first half of the season. The offensive line is a mess, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase seems to have regressed in his sophomore year.

The one constant was the defense. Defensive end Whitney Mercilus leads the nation in sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (nine, a Big Ten record). No wonder, then, that defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was named interim head coach when the school canned Zook. But Koenning says there's no guarantee that he and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino won't leave for other employment before the bowl game.

The Illini's finish made them so unappealing that they got shut out of the Big Ten's bowl lineup. So San Francisco is a nice landing spot, and UCLA -- a 6-7 team that also fired its head coach --- seems like the most fitting opponent.


UCLA take from Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: UCLA is heading to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with an interim coach and losing record. Yeah, it's been that kind of season.

Coach Rick Neuheisel began the season on the hot seat and he couldn't get off it. Only once could the Bruins win consecutive games. The offense ran the ball well but struggled to find any balance with a consistent passing game. And the defense was just terrible.

Things got off to a bad start with a loss at Houston. Neuheisel had made a big deal in the preseason of how important the game was, and the Bruins had stomped the Cougars the previous year. But the Bruins got off to a slow start and couldn't finish a comeback. Then, after a win over San Jose State, the Bruins got clubbed at home by Texas, another team they had beaten the year before.

Then they started alternating wins and losses, beating Oregon State, losing to Stanford and beating Washington State. Things cratered -- it seemed -- in a loss at Arizona, which had just fired coach Mike Stoops.

But then the Bruins beat California and Arizona State back-to-back. Both were upsets. And the combination suddenly put the Bruins in the drivers' seat of the reeling South Division. But the Bruins couldn't maintain. They lost to Utah, beat Colorado and then got crushed 50-0 against rival USC.

The UCLA coach needs to be competitive with the Trojans, and Neuheisel wasn't on Nov. 26 and hasn’t been during his tenure. So he was fired, even though the Bruins backed into the Pac-12 title game. The loss to Oregon dropped the Bruins to 6-7, but they nonetheless will play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl after the NCAA granted it a waiver.

Ron Zook tenure ends at Illinois

November, 27, 2011
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Illinois has done the expected by firing Ron Zook after a historic collapse this season. The next step will be the hard one for first-year athletic director Mike Thomas.

Zook finishes his Illini career at 34-51, though there were some successes. He led the program to the 2008 Rose Bowl, where it was blown out by USC. Illinois is bowl eligible at 6-6 this season, and if the team is selected for the postseason, that would mark the first back-to-back bowl years since 1991-92.

But Zook also had four losing seasons out of seven and was nearly fired in 2009. Instead, he was allowed to return with two new coordinators -- Vic Koenning on defense and Paul Petrino on offense. That worked for a 7-6 record and Texas Bowl win over Baylor last year, and the Illini started this year 6-0 and ranked in the top 20.

That only set the stage, however, for an palindromic 0-6 finish in which the team often looked lost on offense and special teams, the latter of which was supposed to be Zook's area of expertise. The season ended with a 27-7 loss to Legends Division cellar-dweller Minnesota in which Illinois mustered only one first down in the entire first half.

“I assessed the entire program and felt that it was time for a change in leadership,” Thomas said in a statement. “It is imperative that our program shows some consistency and competes for championships, and I think a change in coaches can help us get there sooner."

A change was necessary, since Zook had never shown the ability to consistently compete at a high level, either in Champaign or at his previous head-coaching stop at Florida. His job status was hovering over the program and fans had long since lost faith in his ability to get the job done. It's better to do this now and get started on the coaching search. Koenning will serve as interim coach now and through a possible bowl game, and the players will somehow have to regroup after the deflating losing streak and this transition.

Meanwhile, Thomas now is under the gun to bring a winner to Illinois. And that earlier stat about the back-to-back bowl appearances illustrates just how hard it's been for anyone to consistently deliver. Thomas has already hired one big-time winner, bringing Brian Kelly aboard at Cincinnati and seeing that team make consecutive BCS bowl appearances. He hired Butch Jones to succeed Kelly, and Jones has the Bearcats on the verge of a Big East championship this year in his second season.

Thomas will try to do the same with the Illini, who don't have it easy in trying to battle Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State in the Leaders Division. The program got as far as it was going to go under Zook. Can Thomas find somebody to take it farther?

Illinois building momentum for big season

September, 18, 2011
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois coach Ron Zook has often talked about how his program experienced too much success too soon.

After winning just eight games between 2003-06, Illinois fast-tracked to the Rose Bowl in Zook's third season, finding itself as a surprise participant on college football's grandest stage. Rather than take a step, Illinois skipped about 40.

The Illini tumbled that day against USC and entered a two-year free fall.

No one would describe the 2010 Texas Bowl -- now called the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas -- as an iconic college football setting. It takes place in an NFL venue -- Houston's Reliant Stadium -- and was revived only in 2006.

But for Illinois, the Texas Bowl represented a step, a building block for what players and coaches hopes were bigger things ahead. It didn't hurt that the Illini crushed Baylor 38-14.

"A lot of guys hadn't been to a bowl game," sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown said. "It was kind of good to taste success, but it made us more hungry."

The hunger carried Illinois through the offseason, and the team has been able to retain something it lost following the 2002 Sugar Bowl and the 2008 Rose Bowl.

Momentum.

[+] EnlargeBrock Osweiler
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanThe Illinois defense pressured Arizona State's Brock Osweiler all night -- amassing six sacks and four quarterback hurries.
Illinois announced itself as a team to watch Saturday night against No. 22 Arizona State, rallying behind a ferocious defense for a 17-14 win. The Illini are 3-0 for the first time since 2001 -- the last year they won a Big Ten championship -- and recorded their first win against a ranked opponent since stunning No. 1 Ohio State in 2007.

For their efforts, the Illini, projected by many to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten, likely will earn a spot in the new polls released Sunday.

"We're taking some steps," Zook said. "We're continuing to get where we're supposed to get. ... It makes everybody understand that, 'Hey, maybe Illinois is a bit better than what people think.'"

Illinois and Arizona State both finished the 2010 regular season with identical 6-6 records. While the Illini went bowling, Arizona State stayed home because two of its victories came against FCS opponents.

Still, the Sun Devils entered this season as a team to watch, a belief strengthened by their overtime win last week against Missouri. Arizona State didn't have the letdown coach Dennis Erickson feared, but the Sun Devils couldn't overcome the mistakes (eight penalties, three turnovers) that have plagued them far too often.

Given another chance to turn the corner, Arizona State lost its footing.

"This is gut-wrenching, to be honest with you," receiver Gerell Robinson said. "Everyone is sitting in disbelief that it happened the way it did."

It happened because Illinois' defense executed an innovative, pressuring, "crazy" game plan devised by coordinator Vic Koenning. Illinois mixed up fronts, blitzed often and repeatedly made plays in Arizona State's offensive backfield.

The Illini racked up six sacks, 12 tackles for loss and four quarterback pressures. Two of their three takeaways came as a direct result of pressure on Sun Devils quarterback Brock Osweiler, who entered the game ranked 10th nationally in passer rating and 11th in total offense.

"We sat up here Sunday night, put the game plan together, kind of looked at each other and said, 'This is crazy,'" Koenning said. "But it all worked."

Brown had a breakout performance with 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception. Defensive ends Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan combined for 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble.

"They brought a lot of pressure tonight," Osweiler said. "Shoot, it seemed like almost every snap."

What was pegged as an offensive shootout turned into a defensive tussle, and for much of the game, neither team seemed willing to take control. The teams combined for five turnovers in the first three quarters but converted none for points.

Illinois finally ended the trend when, trailing 14-10 in the fourth quarter, Mercilus sacked Osweiler, forcing a fumble. An Illini offense that hadn't recorded a first down in the second half then marched to the end zone in only four plays.

"You've got to capitalize," Zook said. "You've got to make something happen when you get the ball back."

Arizona State couldn't do so nearly enough. The Devils had eight possessions end in Illinois territory, but only two culminated in points.

"Very disappointing," Erickson said. "It's two steps forward and one step back."

Who knows how a bowl appearance in the winter would have impacted Arizona State for the 2010 season. But there's little doubt about the positive effect it had on the Illini.

"It changed the culture," Buchanan said. "It changed how guys think about playing on the big stage. ... We got a taste of being on top."

Illinois sits atop the Big Ten as one of just four remaining undefeated teams. The league looks extremely vulnerable, and Illinois has three of the next four games at home with the only road trip to Indiana.

Leaders division foes Wisconsin and Ohio State both must visit Memorial Stadium later this fall.

"We're not shooting for the Texas Bowl," Buchanan said. "We're shooting for a big bowl."

New Illini coordinators optimistic

August, 2, 2010
8/02/10
10:21
AM CT
video

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Illinois first-year defensive coordinator Vic Koenning doesn’t know exactly why the Illini crumbled last season.

Koenning was at Kansas State and wasn’t paying attention to Illinois’ 3-9 season. All he can attest to is what he’s been told, and what he now observes.

[+] EnlargePetrino
AP Photo/April L. BrownBobby Petrino's Razorbacks were eighth in the nation at 37 points per game last season.
“I think there’s a lot of guys who wanted to do well, but maybe didn’t have the direction,” Koenning said. “As hard as coach [Ron] Zook has tried to set a tempo and set an atmosphere of toughness and playing hard, I think there were too many scattering things. He couldn’t do it all himself. I think he wore himself out. Personally, I could see him ragged trying to do that. We as a staff, that’s our responsibility.”

It is where Koenning and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino are expected to step in.

Following last year’s disappointing season, Zook cleaned out nearly his entire staff, including his offensive and defensive coordinators, and brought in Koenning from Kansas State and Petrino from Arkansas. There were obvious reasons behind Zook’s selections. Both have been coaching for nearly 20 years, and both have had success everywhere they’ve gone.

Now, the two are expected to produce the same and do it quickly. The assumption is Zook and his staff have probably one season to reverse the Illini’s recent struggles or they could all be out of jobs.

Although some may see taking such a position as a risk, Koenning viewed it as an attraction.

“You see it as a challenge as well as an opportunity,” Koenning said. “Every day is an opportunity to challenge yourself and get better. I like to read history. I saw Michael Jordan say something about this the other day. Back in his day, he would not have called up Larry [Bird] or Magic [Johnson] to play on the same team. He would have just said, ‘I’m going to whup their butt.’ You take challenges where you can find them.”

Koenning’s challenge is to improve a defense that ranked 91st in the nation last season. The Illini ranked 76th against the run and 100th against the pass.

Koenning is coming off a miracle-type transformation at Kansas State. In 2008, the Wildcats were 117th in total defense, 112th in rushing defense and 110th in scoring defense. After Koenning’s arrival, Kansas State dropped to 40th in total defense, 16th in rushing defense and 48th in scoring defense.

So far, Zook likes where Koenning is taking the defense.

“The defense has shown much improvement, much more excitement, much more confidence,” Zook said. “Guys are stepping up and trying to make plays. It’s an area of our game that will be much improved.”

Offensively, Petrino has had similar obstacles. Illinois’ offense ranked 47th offensively -- 17th running and 87th passing -- last year. The offense wasn’t dreadful, but it was expected to achieve much more, as it possessed an experienced quarterback in Juice Williams, one of the nation’s top receivers in Arrelious Benn, eventual NFL draft picks in guard Jon Asamoah and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and an emerging running back in Mikel LeShoure.

Now, Petrino is expected to improve on that with everyone except LeShoure gone, and with a redshirt freshman quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase, running his offense.

Petrino isn’t worried, though. Wherever he’s been an offensive coordinator, his offenses have flourished. At Louisville, his teams averaged 41.1 points per game. At Arkansas last season, the Razorbacks were eighth in the nation at 37 points per game and set a school record for passing yards with 3,640, which broke Petrino’s offensive record from the season before.

Petrino doesn’t expect this season to be any different, even if Scheelhaase has never taken a snap in his collegiate career. He certainly isn’t going to take it any easier on Scheelhaase.

“We’ve always believed in putting a lot of pressure on the quarterback, coaching them hard,” Petrino said. “I think he takes that well and does a good job with that. I played as a true freshman. I had people play as a freshman all over the country. Just because he’s a quarterback doesn’t make it a bigger deal. You just go out there and compete your butt off and play to the best of your ability.”

Like Scheelhaase, Illinois’ upcoming season is full of unknowns. Illinois could very well experience a similar season to a year ago; or, if Koenning and Petrino can duplicate their previous successes, the Illini could be the talk of the Big Ten.

Whatever it is to be, Koenning can’t wait.

“I told my wife this the other day: It’s been a long time since I remember being as excited about a season’s beginning as this one,” Koenning said. “I think it has a lot of intrigue. There’s a lot of things that can happen, might happen, should happen, whatever.”

Zook is optimistic.

“I think the offseason with all the changes that we’ve had it probably has been as smooth as you can expect,” Zook said. “I think the transition with the coaches has been unbelievable. The transition with the coaches and players has been unbelievable. The implantation of the new systems has been a lot of fun. It’s been exciting for the new players. I think it’s been a very, very positive six, seven months, whatever it’s been. I’m really excited to go see where it goes from here.”

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.

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