Tate: Beckman's forecast cloudy with chance of sun
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By producing a 50-50 team this fall, Illini football prospects in 2015 would soar with a more experienced and logically better squad. They would expect to have quarterback Wes Lunt and a core of receivers fully in sync, plus Josh Ferguson, Ted Karras, Teko Powell, Mason Monheim, V’Angelo Bentley, Eaton Spence and Jihad Ward returning for senior leadership a year hence.
Here’s the catch. Coach Tim Beckman must reverse negative momentum in order to survive 2014 — before tuning up for 2015.
Multiple crises are on the way, and Beckman resolved the first threat with a quick, solid hire, naming respected 13-year Maryland line coach Tom Brattan to replace A.J. Ricker.
Analyzing this season, Illinois should be favored at home against Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, Texas State and Purdue, clear cut underdogs at Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State, and in competitive showdowns against Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State and Northwestern. Logically, the late-season showdowns against the latter four — beginning with the homecoming date against Jerry Kill’s Gophers — will determine the future.
As we learned when Ron Zook started 6-0 and finished 0-6, early-season wins don’t carry much weight if the team falters down the stretch. Barring an early surprise, the decision on Beckman’s future will become evident, one way or the other, around November’s two home dates against Iowa and Penn State, and in the finale at Northwestern.
Actually, a muddled picture traditionally seems to clear before the finale, as we learned from the firings of Jim Valek, Bob Blackman (his 1976 Illini thrashed Northwestern 48-6), Gary Moeller (his 1979 team also beat Northwestern, to no avail), Lou Tepper, Ron Turner and Zook. Announcements may be withheld until after the last game, but the decisions aren’t.
Concern in numbers
Beckman has made strides but nevertheless faces an Everest-sized mountain. Fan apathy is at a modern low, with average home attendance of 43,787 topping only Northwestern in the Big Ten last season. The 12-year history shows Illinois with a 29-72 Big Ten record. Only the 2007 team topped .500 in conference play since 2002, and the Illini are a terrible 10-32 in league games after Oct. 31. Regardless of how they start, the Illini have tended not to finish well as depth issues take a toll.
That’s why we must not begin forming conclusions if Illinois gets off to a fast start against Youngstown State and Western Kentucky. Last year’s team, remember, demolished a good (9-4) Cincinnati team, 45-17, but finished 1-7 in the Big Ten.
So here’s how it stacks up: A 6-6 (or better) season is possible, but if you’re laying odds, “smart money” bettors like Ireland’s Gerry McIlroy would look elsewhere for a sure thing.
Perhaps the early games can provide clarification.
Offensively: (1) Whether Lunt meets expectations, both in generalship and stamina, (2) whether Geronimo Allison or another receiver can mimic Steve Hull, (3) whether tight ends Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse live up to expectations and (4) whether 295-pounders Austin Schmidt and Christian DiLauro can grow into Big Ten blockers.
Defensively: (1) Whether hard-muscled JC transfers Ward and Carroll Phillips can bolster the front four, (2) whether redshirted linebacker T.J. Neal can join Monheim in solidifying the linebackers, (3) whether Earnest Thomas — who was seventh in Big Ten tackles as a safety — and D.J. Smoot can protect the soft flanks and (4) whether sophomore Caleb Day and the DBs can continue the strides they flashed in the spring.
If you can answer “yes” to most of these questions, Illinois could reach those home dates against Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa and Penn State with a chance to do some damage.
But history makes me hesitate. It can’t be overlooked that Illinois has lost 10 of the last 14 to Purdue, 11 of 14 to Minnesota, 8 of 11 to both Iowa and Northwestern and 17 of 21 historically to Penn State. And these five aren’t exactly the league leaders.
On the bright side
There are positives in this scary scenario.
In his initial season here, coordinator Bill Cubit uplifted the program when he took a QB, Nathan Scheelhaase, who had thrown four TD passes in an injury-hampered 2012, and did the following:
— Illinois averaged 27.9 points, an increase from 16.7.
— The 5,426 yards in total offense topped, among others, Nebraska and Big Ten champion Michigan State.
— The Illini led the league with a 66.4 percent completion rate and came in second in pass yardage.
— The offense led the Big Ten and finished 17th nationally in third-down conversions (47.6 percent), Cubit calling this statistic “quarterback driven.”
That puts it in the lap of Lunt, whose fluid passing arm gives him the edge over senior Reilly O’Toole and sophomore Aaron Bailey.
On the defensive side, depth is becoming a positive in the line and secondary. UI defenders are growing physically, so surely they won’t trail every Big Ten team in stopping the run. Surely they can get more than three interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. Surely they can hold opponents under 35 points.
In a nutshell, I foresee the season boiling down to four tough battles in the homecoming date against Minnesota and the final three games against Iowa, Penn State and Northwestern. These games are too distant to project outcomes, but they should be indicators for the future.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.