There are 2-1 records, and then there are 2-1 records.
For Illinois, the current 2-1 is better. Optimism was already slipping at this point in 2012. The Illini were stunned and embarrassed at Arizona State and faced a high-scoring Louisiana Tech team that would average more than 50 points per game. Tech got 52 here.
The current squad emerged from the 34-24 loss to Washington with confidence intact and a week to rest before hosting a Miami (Ohio) team that ranks 123rd (last) in offense and 120th in defense. After junior seasons marked by injuries, Nathan Scheelhaase is healthy and producing, and Jonathan Brown is healthy and leading the team in tackles.
“I love the spirit and willingness on this team,” coach Tim Beckman said Monday.
If this sounds like coachspeak, it is. But it also appears to be the case. The offense is averaging 437.7 yards against SIU, Cincinnati and Washington, and outscored Washington 14-3 after a disastrous post-halftime slump put the Illini behind 31-10.
Significantly, the two-deep is virtually identical (actually stronger) compared with the lineup that left Rantoul, and the offensive line hasn’t seen a substitute in the last two games until the very end.
It remains questionable whether the defense can hold up when Big Ten play rolls around but, then, other Big Ten teams have shortcomings as well.
Turning the corner
Switching subjects, tell me: Is there a more difficult assignment in sports than playing defensive back? It’s more demanding than a hockey goalie, more taxing than point guard, more complex than a baseball pitcher.
These football defenders are out there on an island, asked to play every down while opponents repeatedly employ fresh legs. They’re expected to snuff darting ball carriers and nullify big, swift receivers as though they have eyes in the back of their head.
If you didn’t see Notre Dame-Michigan State on Saturday, it was one of the great wrestling matches: Michigan State’s man-coverage defenders against Notre Dame’s receivers. The Irish won by a decision: the decision of the officials to predictably rule interference ... like basketball refs whose block-charge calls always favor the offense. Four crucial 15-yard penalties, three of which were probably correct, swung the game. If Mark Dantonio had expressed his true feelings, he’d probably face suspension.
At Soldier Field the previous weekend, Washington’s four talented seniors manhandled less physical Illini receivers as Scheelhaase went 9 for 25 through the air. The difference: Husky defenders bumped and bullied Illini receivers early, throwing off the UI’s intended quick-throw scheme, while Notre Dame receivers escaped deep for long throws that allowed the officials time to see Michigan State defenders crowding while the ball was in the air.
When it’s executed correctly with good protection, the long pass puts cornerbacks and safeties in extremely awkward positions. Few are able to watch the receiver and the ball at the same time.
“We want to be a big-play offense,” said Bill Cubit, Illini play caller. “If Nate has a choice between 5 and 20 yards, we want him to take 20. He’s throwing more downfield than he did in the past, and we want that to continue. In practice Sunday, he made some throws that showed how much he has improved.”
But it wasn’t apparent early in the 34-24 loss at Soldier Field.
“We reverted to last year,” Cubit said. “Nate became a little antsy. We looked like when I first got here in the spring.
“We anticipated the man-to-man coverage as far back as the spring. If five guys are going out (for passes), one of them is bound to win his battle. We need those guys to get open, and Nate has to find them. We had a couple of drops that hurt, and we started to lose our fundamentals. We felt like we should have scored five touchdowns.”
With defensive ends rushing strong from the outside, Cubit called draw plays that made big gains in the third quarter and forced the Huskies to be less aggressive.
The Illini allowed no sacks after halftime. But it is still a learning process.
— Freshman Austin Schmidt’s entry late in the Cincinnati game and Joe Spencer’s short appearance at guard against Washington are the only O-line substitutions in the last two games. Ted Karras has played every down since his return in the second game, and six-year tackle Corey Lewis said: “I feel good. I played the entire game against Washington.”
— With depth a concern at defensive tackle, Dallas Hinkhouse and Christian DiLauro were shifted last week from offense. But Hinkhouse is back on offense this week, and DiLauro is expected to redshirt. Look for freshman Jarred Clements to get more time at defensive tackle.
— Tim Kynard and Kenny Nelson, who share the same end spot, were the only defenders besides Brown who met Beckman’s standards against Washington. Brown and Kynard are the lone seniors in the defensive two-deep. Don’t expect the defense to be strong until at least a half-dozen seniors are in the mix. Experience counts.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.