Another day, another Big Ten preview. Unlike Jamie’s last entry, which made a fan base yearn to gloss over the ensuring football season in hopes of hitting the hardwood, this one will focus on football – both for your benefit and Illinois faithful. Previously, I took a look at Wisconsin as well as the Big Ten’s adopted child – who doesn’t want to admit it is part of the family – Notre Dame.Other Big Ten previews live here. Today we’re looking at the Fighting Illini.
Is there a more middle-of-the-road program than Illinois? Seriously. It seems every year the debate in Big Ten country, especially Champaign, is will Illinois reach bowl eligibility. Then, step two is determining which lower-tier Big Ten tie-in bowl Illinois will play in with its mediocre 6-6 or 7-5 record. Every handful of years, when a group of seniors are tired of staying home for the holidays or making trips to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, the team will shock the conference and somehow crash the Rose Bowl (see 2007). Before Illini faithful get all excited, 2012 will not be one of those latter years. It’ll be a year where Illinois likely scratches and claws all season just to become bowl eligible. Here are the props to stat and track for 2012:
Illinois wins: Over/Under 6.5
Using last year as a guide you can see the typical blueprint for Illinois’ “success” on the gridiron: Schedule three cupcakes and one easier-than-it-appears game in the nonconference and win at least two Big Ten games to go bowling. With the exception of a home game against then-No. 22 Arizona State, Illinois played nobodies in the nonconference. Arkansas State, South Dakota State and Western Michigan graced Illinois’ schedule in 2011. By defeating Arizona State Illinois only had to win two Big Ten games to reach the magical 6-win mark. Ron Zook’s club won its first two Big Ten games (Northwestern and at Indiana) to go 6-0, cranking up the Illinois-to-the-Rose-Bowl hypo-meter. Then, Illinois proceeded to lose its final six games – becoming the first Big Ten team in history to start 6-0 and finish 6-6. It was enough, however, to get Illinois into the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl where it put on an unwatchable performance in defeating UCLA, 20-14.
The schedule shapes up differently but overall results should be the same. A return trip to Arizona State in early September beefs up an otherwise boring nonconference (Western Michigan, Charleston Southern, and Louisiana Tech). Unlike last season, however, most of Illinois’ winnable Big Ten games are in November. After opening the season at home against Penn State, which is a toss-up game of all toss-ups, Illinois makes back-to-back trips to Wisconsin and Michigan. After recouping for what’ll sure be a few major butt-kickings during a bye week, Indiana comes to town. Outside of a game at the Horseshoe on Nov. 3, the rest of November sets up nicely for a stretch run of winnable games. Minnesota and Purdue are at home while the conference finale is at Northwestern.
The easiest way to analyze the schedule is to look at likely losses first. Chalk up Ls to Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State – all road games. I’ll even throw in the season finale, at Northwestern, into that group. Northwestern isn’t a for-sure loss obviously, but Illinois has lost its last three trips to Evanston and with Northwestern possibly fighting for a bowl berth, I’ll give the ‘Cats an edge. What the season really boils down to – as it did last season – is the nonconference game against Arizona State. That game likely will determine the difference between a 6- or 7-win season. Illinois has enough talent to beat Indiana as well as Minnesota and Purdue fairly easily. Those three “wins” plus the three cupcakes in the nonconference get Illinois bowl eligible. The Penn State game could go either way, but for the sake of this argument, let’s say Bill O’Brien gets the Nittany Lions to play solid football and Illinois loses that one. It puts significant importance on the Sept. 8 game in Tempe.
Here’s a stat that’ll make Illinois fans squirm: Illinois has lost nine of its last 10 road or neutral openers, and the average loss has been by 15 points. No one really knows what to make of the Sun Devils this season so there is definitely hope. Put it this way: If Illinois sweeps the nonconference season it’ll definitely hit the over on 6.5 wins. There are at least three conference wins between Penn State, Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue and Northwestern. This seems like one of those seasons where Illinois, led by junior QB Nathan Scheelhaase wills his team to some unexpected wins and Illinois makes a real play for an 8-4.
The most underrated QB in the Big Ten had a pretty solid 2011 campaign. In completing 63.2 percent of his passes Scheelhaase threw for 2,110 yards and 13 touchdowns to go with eight interceptions. He ran for another 624 yards and six scores. The one negative is that he was credited with 191 rushes last season which is a red flag for a few reasons. First, that’s between 14-15 carries a game, most of which end with big hits. Second, it amounted to a measly 3.3 yards per rush. To improve on the 2,734 total yards he had last season, Scheelhaase’s bet would be to make his runs count; it’s not about the quantity of his runs, it’s the quality.
With Toledo’s Todd Beckman coming to town and installing a spread offense, Scheelhaase’s game should flourish. Quick passes and read options should allow him to use the pass to set up his own running game rather than the opposite. It would help if sophomore Donovan Young, who had 87 rushes for 451 yards (5.2 ypc) and six scores as a true freshman, makes the leap to the next level. Scheelhaase was Illinois’ offense under Zook and as much of Illinois’ tank can be credited to the schedule as it can to Scheelhaase breaking down. While it’s true Scheelhaase’s passing numbers were exceptional in Illinois’ final seven games – his touchdown-to-interception ratio was 13:1 while Illinois went 1-6, there were some late-game scores that only affected the betting line, not the game’s outcome.
Ideally, Scheelhaase should be able to throw for 2,500 yards and rush for another 500. While Beckman wants to keep his QB healthy he won’t ignore the fact that the ball in Scheelhaase’s hands is the best recipe for success. A new blind side protector in Simon Cvijanovic will be crucial to Scheelhaase having the season many envision. There is no reason to believe Cvijanovic can’t do a serviceable job. To keep Scheelhaase upright.
Combined Sacks and Tackles For Loss for Jonathan Brown and Michael Buchanan: Over/Under 13.5, 19.5
These are the numbers the duo recorded in 2011. With Whitney Mercilus gone (16 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss) there are more punishing hits up for grabs. We’ll discuss the secondary a little later, but the pass rush and ability to stop the run will be huge in Illinois’ drive for something luxurious like the Gator Bowl or Insight Bowl rather than the Little Caesars Bowl or Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
Just for kicks, check out Sports Illustrated special Big Ten Preview issue. The most surprising thing was the issue’s writers’ picks for the 2012 All-Big Ten Defense Team. While Michigan State is expected to be not only the conference’s best defensive unit but one of the tops in the nation, Illinois’ defense is getting the quiet recognition. Buchanan, Brown, DT Akeen Spence and CB Terry Hawthorne all made SI’s second team. That’s four Illinois defenders ranked on the conference’s two-deep list. Michigan State also landed four players on the “squad.” For comparison, Ohio State (3), Wisconsin (2) and Nebraska (2) each have fewer big names than Beckham’s squad.
Naturally, it all starts with the front seven, and, in Illinois’ case, that means Buchanan, Brown & Co. While the Big Ten boasts a majority of mobile QBs in Michigan’s Denard Robinson, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, Indiana’s Tre Robinson, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez, Minnesota’s MarQueis Gray, and Northwestern’s Kain Colter (that doesn’t include Illinois’ Scheelhaase), it still has five true pocket passers. Teams like Penn State (Paul Jones), Purdue (Caleb TerBush) and Wisconsin (Danny O’Brien) will need to put in extra practice time to find a way to stop the inevitable orange rush. (That’s not to be confused with the Orange Krush, the Illini’s basketball student section). Expect Buchanan and Brown to go over both totals if Illinois finishes 7-5 or better. If BB & Co. fall short, Illinois likely will also fall short of the over/under wins total and possibly bowl eligibility.
Touchdowns in the Return Game: Over/Under 0.5
This seems like an easy pick. Take the over, man! Illinois just has to return one kickoff or punt for a touchdown! Well, that would be correct except Illinois’ return game was putrid under Ron Zook for six seasons. And despite having a return great in Eric Page (25.2 yards per kick return, 10.9 yards per punt return, two total return touchdowns) while at Toledo, Beckman’s overall special teams were still pretty poor. Against the conference’s stout defenses Illinois will need all the field position it can muster. Darius Millines had just five kick returns last season or a pedestrian 21 yard average. Somehow Millines or another player will have to step up or Illinois will be spending most of its season in the shadow of its goal posts.
The team’s “breakout” sleeper is senior Terry Hawthorne. He started as a wide receiver as a freshman but quickly made the transition to cornerback and his speed is now an asset on special teams. Hawthorne didn’t play a major role in the return game last year, having just five punt returns for a 7.4-yard average, but with Ryan Lankford graduating it seems like he’s ready to step up and excel in that role. One way or another, Mr. Versatility, as he’s called by coaches and teammates, will do his best to give Illinois some desirable field position. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll take one to the house.
Passing Yards Per Game Allowed: Over/Under 199.9
Shockingly, Illinois allowed just 162.3 passing yards per game last season – 3rd fewest in the nation behind Alabama (111) and South Carolina (132). As mentioned above, Hawthorne has a lot to do with that stat. While Eaton Spence, a top Florida recruit, likely takes over the opposite corner spot, safeties Steve Hull and Supo Sanni are back for the unit. There is enough meat up front for Illinois to manage opposing rush offenses. It’ll be the passing offenses that could really give Illinois some problems. But, if the unit mirrors last year’s play Tim Beckham might have the early lead in Big Ten Coach of the Year voting.
The 162.3 number isn’t quite an anomaly, but it’s close. Just three times in Zook’s six seasons did Illinois hold opponents to fewer than 200 passing yards per game. Zook’s first season – 2006 – where Illinois held teams to 182 yards through the air per game was the best before 2011. The 2008 Champaign (197 yards per game) was the only other year to fall under the double century mark. For instance, 2007 and 2009 teams allowed 245 and 249 yards per game, respectively. Even the 2010 team surrendered 221 yards per game.
What it says is that any Illinois turnaround (read: going from middle-bottom of the Big Ten to middle or upper-middle) starts with the secondary. It’ll be interesting to see what Beckman does with the unit. This is the coach, if you forgot, whose Toledo team gave up 63 points in back-to-back games last season and was known for trying to outscore people rather than stop them. (It should be mentioned Toledo lost the first high-scoring affair, 63-60, to Northern Illinois before outscoring Western Michigan the following week, 66-63).
No one should start making LSU comparisons in Champaign in regards to Illinois’ secondary. Nevertheless, with the experience of this five-man unit coupled with high-profile talent there is a lot of excitement on the defensive side of the ball.