The day of reckoning is fast approaching, and Illinois football coach Tim Beckman is likely running out of time. With a 6-18 overall record, including 1-15 in the Big Ten over the past two seasons, Beckman is desperately in need of a positive turnaround — however small — to keep the angry fans from running him out of town.
If he’s looking for a place to start, improving defense is prime objective No. 1. Last season, Illinois allowed 35.4 points per game, which ranked 104th in the FBS. The Illini defense also surrendered 481.5 yards per game to rank No. 110. At 6.66 yards per play, Illinois never really had a chance to succeed, no matter how well the team’s offense performed.
Wisconsin absolutely crushed Illinois 56-32 in Champaign last year, and it will take a Herculean effort by the Illini to stay close with the Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium during the teams’ Oct. 11 matchup. Both teams have bye weeks the following week, so expect them to give everything they have in this game.
Personnel: Despite two sub-par years under Beckman, there is reason for optimism among Illini fans. And quarterback West Lunt, an Oklahoma State transfer, is a big reason why. Lunt has a big arm and plenty of talent — he started five games as a true freshman for the Cowboys. During his lone college season, he completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 1,108 yards with six touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Lunt will certainly have competition at quarterback with Aaron Bailey and Reilly O’Toole. O’Toole was solid in the team’s spring game, completing 12 of 17 passes for 126 yards with two touchdowns, while Lunt went 6 of 16 for 99 yards. But the competition is much bigger than one spring game, and Lunt didn’t transfer to sit. He’ll likely win the starting job come fall camp.
One of the team’s strengths should be at running back, where Illinois has both Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young. Ferguson rushed for 779 yards with seven touchdowns last season, while Young added 376 yards and three touchdowns. Without Nathan Scheelhaase tucking and running at quarterback this year, there should be more opportunities for Ferguson and Young.
Top receiving threat Steve Hull is gone after catching 59 passes for 993 yards with seven touchdowns, so Illinois needs some playmakers to emerge at wide receiver. Former walk-on Pete Bohannon could be one of those players. He caught seven passes for 95 yards during the team’s spring game. Senior Martize Barr has game experience (26 catches, 246 yards, one touchdown last season), while junior college transfer Geronimo Allison will be relied on heavily. Allison became one of the top junior college wideouts at Iowa Western and was a former teammate of Barr’s there.
Defensively, Illinois has plenty of work to do after a miserable 2013 campaign. Earnest Thomas will be a senior leader and is the team’s top returning tackler (101). Linebacker Mason Monheim, a two-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week performer last season, tallied 97 tackles. Senior defensive back Zane Petty also returns after making 75 tackles.
Of course, there were plenty of tackles to be had last season because Illinois surrendered so many yards. The biggest key in 2014 will be getting off the field quicker, even if it means forcing more turnovers. Last year, Illinois ranked last in the Big Ten in turnovers gained with 11. No other Big Ten team had fewer than 17 turnovers gained.
Pass happy: Illinois actually had one of the most potent passing games in the Big Ten last season, though the numbers were lost because of the team’s poor defense. Illinois averaged 287.7 yards passing per game, which ranked second in the Big Ten behind only Indiana. Wisconsin, which has a much stronger running game, finished the season ranked tied for ninth in passing yards per game (197.1).
Head-to-head: Wisconsin has done a remarkable job in recent years of beating Big Ten teams it is supposed to beat, and that trend has extended to Illinois. The Illini are 1-8 in their last nine matchups against the Badgers. During that time, Wisconsin has outscored Illinois by an average of 33-21.
Streak ender: Bad Big Ten play wasn’t limited just to the Beckman era at Illinois. The Illini also lost their final six conference games of the 2011 season under Ron Zook, which led to his firing. Illinois went more than two years — from Oct. 8, 2011 to Nov. 23, 2013 — without winning a single Big Ten game. Illinois finally beat Purdue, 20-16, to snap a 20-game conference losing streak late last season.