It opened the season expecting to reach a third consecutive bowl and maybe even contend for the Leaders Division title. But those thoughts were quickly swept away from the Illinois football team, which ended the year on a 14-game Big Ten losing streak. It got so bad, the AD had to announce his first-year coach would return for the 2013 season. The 2-10 season didn’t happen overnight. Here are college football beat writer’s Bob Asmussen’s 10 signs of trouble:
On Jan. 3, Tim Beckman hired longtime college defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta for the same position at Illinois. Tenuta earned a national reputation while running the defenses at Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and others. The hire seemed like a very good start to a staff for Beckman. But a day later Tenuta changed his mind, pointing to “family reasons” in deciding to stay at North Carolina State. It forced Beckman to reopen his search for a defensive coordinator, and he ultimately settled on Tim Banks. No way to know how it would have worked with Tenuta, but his past points to a high probability for success. Staying at North Carolina State didn’t work out for Tenuta. His boss, Tom O’Brien, was fired despite a 7-5 season. Tenuta and the rest of the staff are staying to work the bowl game.
In June, standout defensive end Michael Buchanan suffered a broken jaw in an off-the-field “incident.” Buchanan, who could have left Illinois a year early for the NFL, had his jaw wired shut. While the actual cause of the break was never released by the school, speculation had Buchanan involved in an altercation with a teammate. The broken jaw didn’t cost Buchanan any playing time, and he was quickly able to regain weight lost while he was unable to eat solid foods. Teammates do fight at times. Mikel Leshoure suffered a broken jaw at the hands of a teammate during his Illinois playing days. But were there any repercussions for the players involved? And how did the rest of the team feel about what happened? Chemistry can suffer if the players aren’t satisfied with the resolutions.
IT’S A DRY HEAT
After an impressive opening win against Western Michigan, Illinois had a chance to improve to 2-0 with a game at Arizona State. Problem was, the team didn’t have quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who suffered an injury against the Broncos. And it had no answer for Todd Graham’s Sun Devils. Arizona State jumped to a 28-7 halftime lead on the way to a 45-14 victory. The Illini defense, so good in the opener, gave up 510 yards. And backup quarterbacks Reilly O’Toole and Miles Osei turned the ball over three times.
Any thoughts that the Arizona State game was a fluke ended two weeks later in the late hours at Memorial Stadium. Louisiana Tech took advantage of six Illinois turnovers in a 52-24 victory. The Bulldogs needed less than 24 minutes on offense to hit the half-century mark, snapping the ball quickly on most plays. Just like against Arizona State, Illinois couldn’t adjust to the sped-up pace. Louisiana Tech gave future Illini opponents an easy blueprint to follow.
PINCH BETWEEN THE CHEEK AND GUM
Illinois self-reported an NCAA violation when Tim Beckman was seen chewing tobacco during the Wisconsin game. Beckman apologized repeatedly for the incident and said it would be “corrected.” College athletes, coaches and officials are prohibited from chewing tobacco during games and practices. Though considered a minor violation, it wasn’t the kind of publicity needed for a struggling program. You can certainly find old photos of coaches lighting up cigarettes during games, but times have changed. Anything that is unhealthy, especially for kids, is going to be an NCAA no-no. The coach should have known that before reaching into the pouch.
His passing yards dropped 749 yards. While his interceptions remained steady at eight, he threw nine fewer touchdown passes. And his rushing yards fell from 624 to 303. Injuries were partly to blame for Nathan Scheelhaase’s diminishing production. And so was an offensive line that struggled with injuries and consistency. The production reduction has some calling for Scheelhaase to switch positions as a senior, turning the quarterback job to O’Toole or incoming freshman Aaron Bailey. But Scheelhaase is one of the most successful quarterbacks in school history and was the first to win consecutive bowl games for Illinois. His leadership skills are considered top-notch.
Remember when Illinois beat Rich Rodriguez-coached Michigan teams by 50 points in consecutive seasons? Seems like a long time ago. For the first time in two decades, the Wolverines shut out Illinois in a 45-0 victory. Two years after Illinois scored 65 points at Michigan Stadium, it was never in the game. And this isn’t a Michigan team on the way to the Rose Bowl. Brady Hoke’s team is talented, but it is far from the best at the school. Illinois was similarly ineffective against lesser Minnesota, failing to score a touchdown at home for the first time since 1998.
The statistics don’t lie. Not this time. Despite the return of several key players from a Top 10 defense, Illinois dropped to 52nd in yards allowed. Despite the promise of improved special teams, Illinois was 103rd in kickoff returns and 118th in punt returns. Despite the return of a veteran quarterback, Illinois was 106th in turnover margin. And that struggling offensive line left Illinois 111th in sacks allowed. And the offense that could never find any kind of consistency finished 118th in yards gained and 119th in points.
As in Jonathan Brown. And Houston Bates. And Supo Sanni. And Steve Hull. And Terry Hawthorne. And Graham Pocic. And Hugh Thornton. Illinois suffered enough injuries to keep a squad of doctors busy. Before the season started, Beckman made it clear to reporters that he wouldn’t discuss injured players. Maybe he knew what was coming. In one of the worst years in memory, Illinois was hit hard by injuries. On a team that was already thin at multiple positions. The offensive line injuries forced Luke Butkus into full shuffle mode. The only good part was the return of Corey Lewis, who made an unexpected return from two missed seasons. But that wasn’t enough to overcome the lost game time and the interrupted practice routine for the damaged squad. And after the season, the trainer quit.
TAKING THE FALL
The interception was bad enough. But what happened next might have summed up the Illinois season. On the last play of the first quarter at Northwestern, the Wildcats intercepted a Nathan Scheelhaase pass. As the Northwestern player returned the ball, one of the officials ran into Beckman, who was following the play on the sideline. Beckman got knocked to the ground by the official, who tossed a yellow flag after the crash. The Illini were penalized for sideline interference with an official, a rule that should be named in honor of the Illinois coach. Earlier in the game, the Illini were penalized after a successful two-point conversion for having players wearing the wrong numbers.