Tate: Illini desperately need season to kick off
Let’s hear it for football season! Bring on the games.
Some say the sport is on life support — too many concussions — but the vital functions remain strong.
And no one needs to return to the excitement of Kickoff Saturday more than Illinois, where the consuming tide of offseason skepticism has been crippling.
Last year’s 2-10 swoon was bad enough. Since then, Illini Nation has wallowed in eight months of woe-is-us.
With games, coach Tim Beckman at least has a chance. In the current mode of grumbling public opinion, not so much. If there are internal improvements within the squad, those gains are private. In the community’s bars and barber shops, and on the Internet, expectations have seldom been so low.
(1) Early departures
No sooner had the Illini dropped their 14th straight Big Ten game, 50-14, to Northwestern on Nov. 24, than more disappointments crept onto Beckman’s doorstep. Assume the position: Whack!
Akeem Spence, standout defensive tackle, became the ninth UI star to join the NFL with eligibility remaining since Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 1,681 yards in 2007. Think how much better Illini teams would have been if Mendenhall, Mikel Leshoure, Martez Wilson, Arrelious Benn, Vontae Davis, Corey Liuget, Josh Brent (OK, he had no choice) and Whitney Mercilus had stuck around. What’s the value of having more NFL draftees than any Big Ten team in the last five years if they leave the instant they show pro potential?
Combine these NFL departures with all the other personnel absences, and Beckman finds himself with the least experienced squad in the Big Ten. There are just four 2009 squadmen taking advantage of their fifth season: Nathan Scheelhaase, Tim Kynard, Jake Feldmeyer and Steve Hull. That 2009 class was struck early by multiple decommits, standouts like tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz (Iowa). And Ron Zook’s staff soon felt the absence of key recruiters Mike Locksley and Reggie Mitchell. Nor did it help that four-star Chicago linemen Lendell Buckner and Leon Hill arrived on campus, because they weren’t here long. More than two dozen potential contributors to the 2013 team have evaporated — boy, is Jay Prosch missed — and it carries right through the most recent suspensions of receiver Darius Millines and defensive end Darrius Caldwell.
(2) The Vegas odds
Las Vegas projects that Illinois will win 3.5 games. That would be an improvement over last season. However, Indiana and Purdue are each projected to win 5.5 games. They’re the weakest Big Ten teams on the UI schedule, and both games are on the road. The over-under for Ohio State is 11.5, just ahead of Michigan and Nebraska at 9.5.
What that means for the Illini is that they’re expected to beat Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio), and then “steal” another game or two along the way. What this doesn’t take into account is the late-season status of the program if, as is predicted, October finds the Illini losing to Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Defeats have a way of multiplying as injuries and disappointments take their toll.
We’ve seen this before. Illinois shows 12 wins and 48 losses in the last six regular season games of the past 10 seasons. A dozen wins in 60 tries is 20 percent.
Based on Vegas odds, a four-win season would be overachievement.
(3) Piling on Beckman
If there’s a penalty for piling on, it should be assessed here. I don’t recall Ron Turner (0-11) or Zook (2-9) catching this much grief after first-season disasters. Maybe it’s the increase in cyberspace interaction.
Then came Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel, adding a “worst coaches” list to his Top 10 headed by Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. You’ll find Beckman’s name in Mandel’s “worst five coaches” lineup alongside Eastern Michigan’s Ron English, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, Kansas’ Charlie Weis and USC’s Lane Kiffin.
It’s no secret that Beckman’s slow start at the UI has put both the coach and athletic director Mike Thomas under the gun. And the coach is clearly short of ammunition. In analyzing the letterman-lost percentages in the nation, Phil Steele comes up with an “experience chart” showing that 58 teams (roughly half) have at least 70 percent returnees. Based on the personnel numbers that Steele had at the time, Illinois stands 122nd out of 126 schools with 24 of 57 lettermen lost.
(4) Attendance slippage
Illinois drew more than 70,000 (paid) for 21 consecutive Big Ten games during the mid-80s. Due to renovation, the stadium can’t even seat that many today. Last crowd over 60,000 came in a 31-14 loss to Michigan two years ago. The announced average in 2012 was 45,564, marking a steady falloff from 59,545 in 2009.
Question today: Will the Illini average 40,000 in 2013? There are reports that, even at $99 season prices for students, sagging campus interest might leave an opening in the north end zone. And if the suites were sold out, they wouldn’t be offered to corporations on an individual-game basis.
There’s talk of attendance slippage across the country, but you won’t see much of a falloff for 17 schools that averaged 80,000 or more last season. Winners draw. Michigan’s Wolverines must not be feeling the effects of bankrupt Detroit as they came in at 112,252, and Ohio State was No. 2 in the nation at 105,303. So, as we enter the 2013 campaign, you can call it Leaders-Legends or East-West, but to me it’s still the Big Two and the Little Whatever.
(5) Recruiting struggles
While emphasizing Chicagoland and scouring “home territory,” UI football coaches have uncovered some quality sleepers and attracted a key transfer in Wes Lunt, but they have been unable to close on the state’s top-rated prospects.
Edgy Tim O’Halloran offers a valid list that shows, among the state’s Top 20 upcoming seniors, the Illini have one (lineman Nick Allegretti, No. 18) while 14 others have committed to Ohio State (two), Notre Dame, Northwestern (three), Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Michigan, Michigan State (two), Kansas, North Carolina State, and Iowa State. In Greater Chicago, everybody, but EVERYBODY, gets a share.
Ohio State has a handshake with the best lineman, Jamarco Jones of De La Salle. Notre Dame landed Marist tight end Nic Weishar, No. 4 on the list. Of the 20, five remain uncommitted including the Nos. 1 and 2, linebackers Clifton Garrett of Plainfield South and Nyles Morgan of Crete-Monee.
Meanwhile, in striving to crack the junior college market, the Illini staff is severely handicapped by UI academic requirements that recently eliminated roughly 85 percent of the recommended candidates.
EDITOR’S NOTE: As we saw on Phil Mickelson’s last six holes Sunday, sudden reversals can be inexplicable. There are notable revivals throughout UI history, the Illini most recently rebounding from 2-9 and 2-10 seasons to reach the Rose Bowl in 2007. Admittedly, expectations were different then. Zook’s recruiting classes were stronger. Beckman will now be called on to do more with less, and the long-awaited games will give him a refreshed opportunity to do so.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.