Tate: Winning back fans will take time
A quartet of Illini football issues rose above the rest this week. Let's tackle them one by one.
They are: (1) concerns about attendance, (2) the uncertain status of Nathan Scheelhaase and his injured teammates, (3) a reluctance among fans to recognize how good Louisiana Tech is and (4) a veteran defense's ability to counter Tech's high-octane tempo.
Faced with disappointing turnouts and a lopsided loss at Arizona State, the UI administration is maintaining a stiff upper lip as the Tim Beckman era tries to lift off.
Among the folks, it's very much wait-and-see after years of viewing a bad pattern. So bad, in fact, that Brody Burns compiled evidence for Yahoo!Sports last week labeling Illinois second worst among the most underachieving football programs in the last decade.
Citing money, location, talent, history and recruiting opportunity among the factors, and referring to "baffling anomalies of regular mediocrity," Burns called the UI's underperformance "blatant."
Only UCLA, which has qualified for six recent bowls with a 6-6 record, is judged more disappointing than Illinois, which is followed by Colorado and Notre Dame.
The UI's 10-year record of 43-77 and an early-September flop at Arizona State don't square with a Top 25 athletic budget and "the world's largest alumni community (so claimed, not exactly confirmed) ... that could be turned into a robust network of booster and contributors," wrote Burns.
Turnstile counts, never officially released, were below 30,000 in the UI's first two home games.
As always, there are multiple reasons ... in this case threatening weather Sept. 1 and a subpar opponent Sept. 15.
The 10-year performance, following decades of ups and downs, is the real concern. Skip the difficulty of Chicago recruiting and a subpar 2012 schedule, and you're still bucking a lagging economy, bigger home TVs offering a variety of games and the chronic disillusionment with UI expectations.
It is noteworthy, while cities like Columbus, Ohio, and Madison, Wis., are hot centers of commerce, the UI is surrounded by weakness. Within a few miles of Champaign-Urbana, we have seen towns like Rantoul, Danville (down 10,000 to 33,000) and Decatur (down from six figures to 76,000) lose business and population that, cumulatively, is in the tens of thousands ... striking directly at the blue-collar workers who attended sold-out games in the Mike White era.
Queried about attendance, Beckman said: "I don't know if I expected any more or any less. My concern is about fielding a good football team and being as good as we can be. We have to win ..."
It stops there.
Vegas oddsmakers, who judge teams for a living, figure Saturday's teams are virtually even. If Illinois gets a nod, it's because of the home field.
Some oddsmakers held back early this week because of uncertainties about Scheelhaase.
"All three quarterbacks are going to play," said Reilly O'Toole, who started the last two games.
We are left to wonder. It seems likely that Scheelhaase's sprained ankle will allow him to return, many believing he was withheld as a precaution against Charleston Southern after Beckman said he "could have played in an emergency at Arizona State."
Explaining his injury policy, Beckman said: "I'm just trying to do what's best for this football team. It's been this way at the places where I've coached. I just want to protect the players and the team."
Tailback Josh Ferguson appears ready after receiving a bump on the head two weeks ago. Center Graham Pocic and receiver Darius Millines appear doubtful. These are the main concerns offensively.
With Millines out last week, the performances of receivers Ryan Lankford (seven catches for 97 yards) and freshman Justin Hardee (five for 99) were encouraging.
Said co-coordinator Billy Gonzales:
"When we lost Darius, we moved Lank over in certain sets. He is a hard worker and gives us top-end speed.
"Hardee is a quick learner. He played both ways in high school (Cleveland Glenville) and came here as a defensive back. With our thin numbers, he agreed to move to receiver. He has good athletic ability and toughness, and has done a great job in playing multiple positions."
Bulldogs are potent
Illinois could play a solid game and still lose. That's how good Sonny Dykes' team is. This is a tossup. Special teams and turnovers may decide the outcome.
Tech played two second-division SEC teams last year, beating Ole Miss 27-7 and losing in overtime to Mississippi State 26-20. Houston, Southern Miss and TCU were a combined 36-5 in 2011 — they were really good — and Tech lost to them by one, two and seven points last year.
The 2012 version of the Bulldogs is considered improved, with high-scoring wins against Houston and Rice. They get out of the gate fast. They led Houston 21-6 and 49-27 before winning 56-49, and led Rice 21-0 and 42-17 before winning 56-37.
"Their defense was good until they got those huge leads," UI co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said. "They have a lot of speed and athleticism on defense. Don't be fooled."
It's up to UI defense
More than enough has been revealed about the UI's defensive sideline-to-field communication problems at Arizona State. Those have surely been resolved by the heightened awareness and the new color scheme.
Now we'll see if the secondary, which covered so well against WMU's Alex Carder, can handle receiver Quinton Patton and the high-powered Bulldogs attack.
If the Illini are to reach a third straight bowl game, this defensive unit, featuring experienced starters and youthful backups, must carry the load. If early games are an indication, Tech presents a more explosive offense than most Big Ten teams. And the Bulldogs have momentum, showing nine straight regular-season wins, while the Illini are 2-7 in the same span.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.