Answer me this ...
If beat writer MATT DANIELS was standing behind a podium, with TV cameras and recorders nearby, like Illinois coach Tim Beckman was after every game this season, here’s how he would answer the following:
1. Why was the defense so bad?
Good question. No easy answer. A multitude of reasons why the Illini finished in the bottom fourth of all defensive categories in the Big Ten. Their inability to stop the run (league-worst 238.6 yards per game). Their inability to pressure the quarterback (second-worst number of sacks in 15). Their inability to force turnovers (league-low 11). The mere mention of Tim Banks to certain Illinois fans became almost like a four-letter word. The second-year defensive coordinator liked to show multiple looks and send varied blitzes in his previous stop at Cincinnati. Worked out pretty well. Who knows if Banks will get a third season at Illinois and a chance to improve on his unit’s porous 2013. The tackling needs to improve. The angles defenders take needs to improve. The lack of discipline they showed at times needs to improve. The list could go on. But we want you to enjoy the rest of your Sunday.
2. How will people remember Scheelhaase?
Nathan Scheelhaase will have his critics. No doubt. And he’ll have his supporters. His 10,634 yards of offense are the most in program history. He became more than just a dual-threat quarterback this season. His 3,272 passing yards were more than he accumulated combined during the 23 games he played in his freshman and junior seasons. It looked like a sure lock Scheelhaase would move past Juice Williams for most career rushing yards by an Illinois quarterback after his first two seasons on campus. He is second in that category with 2,066 rushing yards, but he became an elite passer this year. Much thanks should find its way toward offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who has had plenty of prolific quarterbacks in his coaching career. Scheelhaase gave him most of the credit immediately after the regular season finale against Northwestern. Even more than his production on the field and the fact he won two bowl games his first two seasons, people should remember Scheelhaase for the classy and gracious way he handled himself. A true pro in that department.
3. Why couldn’t Illinois get a first down late against Penn State?
If it does, Illinois wins the game in Happy Valley. Moves to 4-4. Carries that momentum into the rest of the season. Possibly winds up 6-6. But all those situations didn’t play out. The Illinois defense made a heck of a stand within the 10-yard line late in the fourth quarter leading 17-14. The Penn State students were screaming at Illinois players after Mike Svetina forced a fumble that Houston Bates recovered near the goal line. But those taunts turned into cheers when a Scheelhaase pass was too high to Evan Wilson. And a run by Josh Ferguson went for 1 yard before Ferguson exited with cramps. Donovonn Young didn’t fare much better on the next play, picking up 1 yard, forcing a punt by Justin DuVernois and Penn State tying the game before regulation ended. The play-calling was a bit questionable there, but, like Beckman pointed out after the game and on many occasions this season, a different result has people applauding the call instead of second-guessing it.
4. What happened to Donovonn Young?
The downfall to Young’s junior season started in the season opener. And continued to get worse in the Big Ten opener. Talk of a 1,000-yard season for the proud Texan seems like wishful thinking considering Young finished with 376 rushing yards, the worst production of his career. A year removed from leading Illinois in receptions with 39, Young wound up with 12 catches for 43 yards this season. Young only generated 6 yards on eight carries against Southern Illinois in his first game this year. A costly fumble in the first quarter against Nebraska seemed to zap some of the confidence the coaches had in him, and his playing time diminished. He only rushed for 107 yards on 32 carries in his final seven games and didn’t get a carry against Michigan State. The emergence of Ferguson and the ability of Ferguson to stay healthy throughout much of the season played a role, but the possible 1-2 punch of both backs producing at levels like Melvin Gordon and James White at Wisconsin never materialized.
5. Why was the offense so much better?
The most obvious choice goes to Scheelhaase playing better. He adapted well to Cubit’s attacking offensive system that wasn’t afraid to unleash deep passes or throw in a few wrinkles. Steve Hull developed into a game-changing wide receiver in the latter half of the season. Take into consideration Hull missed the Michigan State game with a head injury, didn’t catch a pass against Washington or Nebraska and his 993 receiving yards on 59 catches for seven TDs is all the more impressive. The improved play of the offensive line was a big reason, too, why the offense improved dramatically in almost every single category. Yes, the number of sacks Illinois gave up (30, ninth in the Big Ten) wasn’t great, but running lanes were more prevalent this year and Scheelhaase wasn’t scrambling for his life on every play.
1. Lunt or Bailey? Bailey or Lunt?
What, no Reilly O’Toole in the discussion for the starting quarterback job? Sorry, no. O’Toole will have the chance to wrest the job from Wes Lunt or Aaron Bailey. But the backup to Nathan Scheelhaase the last three seasons likely won’t get the starting nod against Youngstown State. Lunt is the clear favorite. His ball comes out of his hands differently than the other quarterbacks Illinois has. He proved as a true freshman at Oklahoma State he is capable of putting up large numbers. But he also proved he is capable of getting hurt. After four seasons of Scheelhaase only missing two starts because of an injury, that’s an element Illinois fans aren’t used to. Lunt won’t beat Bailey in a 40-yard dash, but speed is only one part of becoming the next Illinois starting quarterback. And the only type of speed Cubit is concerned with is how fast the ball gets out of Lunt’s hands to different playmakers. Illinois didn’t showcase Bailey on the field last year with a full playbook. How each quarterback handles the upcoming spring game could go a long way in determining who starts against the Penguins in next season’s opener.
2. Who’s the next Steve Hull?
If you want to get literal and have the same scenario pan out in which a defensive back turns into a possible All-Big Ten wide receiver, Darius Mosely is your man. But the Illinois coaches like what the athletic Mosely provides at cornerback. A number of factors led to Hull’s emergence into a focal point of the Illinois game plan each week. Ryan Lankford suffered a season-ending dislocated shoulder against Michigan State. Hull stayed relatively healthy, only missing the game against Michigan State. Hull used the techniques he picked up as a safety to his advantage, knowing where to position himself on certain throws. And he utilized his athleticism. His hands weren’t bad, either. Martize Barr is the leading returning receiver for Illinois, but he didn’t necessarily have many Illinois fans talking about his performance after games this season. The junior college transfers — Geronimo Allison and Tyrin Stone-Davis — could fill the void of a physical wide receiver who can stretch defenses like Hull did. Stay tuned.
3. Does Illinois end 2014 with a winning record in the Big Ten?
Think long and hard about this one. Seriously. Had enough thinking? Don’t count on Illinois to wind up at 5-3 or better in conference play. Home games against Purdue and Penn State might look like possible wins now. Don’t feel so confident about home games against Minnesota and Iowa. Jerry Kill has his Gophers pointing in the right direction, and say what you will about Kirk Ferentz, the guy can still coach. That leaves road games against Nebraska (loss), Wisconsin (loss) and Ohio State (loss). The season finale at Evanston gives a brief glimmer of hope, and then you remember that Trevor Siemian will return. That quarterback who was the only one to throw for more than 400 yards against Illinois this year. So, best-case scenario right now looks like a 3-5 league mark. Worst case? A 1-7 Big Ten record, with an early October win against the Boilermakers followed by six straight losses to end the season.
4. Will Tim Beckman coach a fourth season at Illinois?
Not if he loses his final six Big Ten games like the sentence above points out is a possibility. He will enter the 2014 season in the third year of a five-year deal. Hate to say it’s a bowl game or bust for Beckman to keep his job, but it sure feels that way. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas doesn’t like to get into the hypothetical situations of how many games Beckman needs to win in 2014 in order for him to keep his job. Safe to say, though, that another 4-8 season most likely won’t cut it. The expectations surrounding college football at high-major conferences, right or wrong, is to win. And win now. Anything short of a 6-6 season will have Illinois fans clamoring for Beckman’s dismissal and canceling season ticket orders. Get to 7-5, however, and fans’ opinions of the Beckman regime could change in a heartbeat.
5. Is there a bowl game in store for Illinois next year?
Maybe. There’s certainly enough possibilities. College football fans all across the country will have to adjust to the new four-team playoff system that will be unveiled next year. Illinois probably won’t have to worry about finding itself among the top four teams. Then again, who thought based on how Missouri played in 2012 that the Tigers could have an outside shot at a national title this season? Now back to reality. The Big Ten will have several new bowl partners next year. Gone are tie-ins with the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and the Texas Bowl. In are agreements with the Holiday Bowl, the Music City Bowl, the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, the Pinstripe Bowl and a new bowl game in Detroit. Jim Delany’s conference will switch to a tiered system in selecting teams for bowl games, with the Rose Bowl in the highest tier (although that bowl will host a semifinal game next season), then the Capital One, Outback and Holiday bowls followed by the Gator, Music City, Kraft Fight Hunger and Pinstripe bowls and then the Heart of Dallas, Armed Forces and the new Detroit bowl. Confused yet? No chance the Big Ten fills all those bowl slots, but if Illinois somehow winds up with a bowl-eligible record, Beckman won’t care what bowl game it is.