Illini want bowl plans this winter
CHAMPAIGN — Michael Heitz has played in a bowl game for Illinois.
Started in fact.
The veteran offensive lineman for the Illini is one of the few who can make the claim.
He is one of two starters Illinois had in its 20-14 win against UCLA in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl who is still on the roster.
“The older guys, we know what the bowl games are like and how they go,” Heitz said Sunday during Illinois’ media day. “We know what we’re missing out on. The younger kids haven’t had a taste of it yet to know how hard it is in December when you’re going home. Yeah, it’s fun being home, but I’d much rather be celebrating somewhere else.”
Reaching a bowl game this year, for many, is the least Illinois coach Tim Beckman can do in order to retain his job.
The last five coaches Illinois has had — Ron Zook, Ron Turner, Lou Tepper, John Mackovic and Mike White — all had their teams playing in at least one bowl game by the time their third season ended.
Of the 13 Big Ten schools eligible for bowls the last two seasons, including newcomers Maryland and Rutgers, only Illinois and Indiana haven’t played in a postseason game in the time span.
Not exactly company Illinois wants to keep.
“I want it for our players,” said Beckman, who is 6-18 in his first two seasons at Illinois. “To me, the reward is opportunities to go to bowl games. It’s not about getting a backpack or something like that. It’s an opportunity to go somewhere in this country that a lot of them have never been. Whatever we can do to make sure that we can reward their heart that they’ve given us.”
How well the defense plays this season is a major factor of whether Illinois will find itself playing in a bowl game.
Beckman hasn’t named a starting quarterback yet among the trio of Wes Lunt, Reilly O’Toole and Aaron Bailey — he indicated Sunday he would like to have one in place possibly by the time Camp Rantoul ends on Aug. 18 and before the Illini start practice the week before the season opener against Youngstown State on Aug. 30 — but the offense isn’t a concern with Illinois this season.
Stopping the run and getting to the quarterback on a more consistent basis is a must for the Illini.
If not, postseason aspirations most likely won’t materialize.
“I don’t think it’s just a bowl game, but a big bowl game,” defensive back Taylor Barton said, “Everyone’s on board with that, and everyone that’s been to a bowl game wants to go back probably more than anybody that hasn’t gone to a bowl game.”
Lunt, the favorite to win the starting quarterback job, has bowl game experience when he played his lone season with Oklahoma State and the Cowboys routed Purdue 58-14 to win the 2013 Heart of Dallas Bowl.
“It was a lot of fun,” Lunt said. “It’s a reward for getting those six wins. I know the seniors have tasted a couple bowl games, and they always have stories about how much fun they had. That’s something we all want to get back to really bad.”
Offensive lineman Ted Karras agrees.
And isn’t mincing words when the topic is broached.
“It’s a requirement for this program,” Karras said. “This is the time to do it. The fans expect it. We expect it. I think we owe it to this city, this community and this fanbase to get to a bowl game.”