The late-season emergence of Freshman QB Nathan Scheelhaase and a victory over RGIII’s Baylor Bears in the Texas Bowl gave Illini fans reason for optimism heading into the 2011 campaign. Add to that a schedule featuring 8 home games, an experienced offensive line, and some promising offensive and defensive coordinators, and the Fighting Illini had an actual chance to compete in the Big Ten.
The first half of the season went according to script, as Scheelhaase led the Illini to its best start in six decades, featuring thrilling victories over Arizona State and Northwestern. WR A.J. Jenkins emerged as one of the nation’s top receivers, and DE Whitney Mercilus established himself as a premier pass-rusher. Sitting at 6-0, Illinois played host to Ohio State, a game in which the Buckeyes completed just one pass, but were still able to hand the Illini its first loss of the season.
From there, the wheels came off, as the Illini rattled off 5 more losses to become the first FBS team to lose its final 6 games after winning its first 6, and, in the end, cost head coach Ron Zook his job.
Despite the historically disappointing conclusion to the season, Illinois ended up in a bowl game for the second straight year, and, thanks to a pick-six from CB Terry Hawthorne, came away with a victory over UCLA at AT&T Park in San Francisco, giving the Illini back-to-back bowl victories for the first time in school history.
Entering the 2012 season, there are several reasons to believe Illinois could receive a bowl berth for the third straight year.
New head coach Tim Beckman has shown he will do what it takes to build a competitive program in Champaign, opting to send assistant coaches to Happy Valley to meet with interested players in the wake of the historic sanctions leveled against Penn State. The fruit of Beckman’s labor was transfer Ryan Nowicki, a 6’5″ OT who will provide much-needed depth on the offensive line.
Illinois’ schedule isn’t a cake-walk, but it could be a lot worse. The Illini’s 7 home games include Western Michigan, Charleston Southern, Louisiana Tech, Penn State, Indiana, Minnesota, and Purdue, all games the Illini should be favored to win. The road schedule is more arduous, as Illinois will travel to Arizona State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, and Northwestern.
Illinois returns a host of playmakers from a defense that allowed just 291.8 yards/game in 2011, the seventh best mark in the nation, including DE Michael Buchanan, DT Akeem Spence, LB Jonathan Brown, and CB Terry Hawthorne. If the Illini make any noise in the Big Ten this season, it will be at the hands of the defense.
Of course, all optimism should be met with a healthy amount of skepticism.
Illinois will need to replace significant talent on both sides of the ball, as the Illini saw four players selected in the first 50 picks of the NFL Draft. Illinois will look to replace the playmaking ability of WR A.J. Jenkins (1,276 yards, 8 TD), who came just 2 yards shy of breaking the all-time Illinois single season receiving record, and DE Whitney Mercilus, who led the nation in sacks. The offensive line will look to adjust to new positions after an offseason shakeup resulting from the loss of seniors Jeff Allen and Jack Cornell.
Illinois’ offense struggled over the second half of the season. During its first six games, the Illini put up 2,686 total yards (448 yards/game) and averaged 35 points/game. During its final six games, the Illini put up 1,612 yards (269/game) and averaged 11 points/game. Illinois fans are hoping Tim Beckman’s new spread offense will be the answer to last season’s offensive woes. The question will be if a receiving core of Darius Millines, Spencer Harris, and Ryan Lankford, along with tight ends Evan Wilson, Jon Davis, and Matt LaCosse, can give Scheelhaase enough viable options to make the offense work. Jenkins caught over half of Illinois’ receiving TDs in 2011 and represented 53% of the team’s total receiving yards.
The early departure of Mikel Leshoure to the NFL opened the door for seniors Jason Ford and Troy Pollard, along with freshmen Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson, to take over the running duties for the 2011 season. Illinois’ running attack was underwhelming, which had at least partly to do with the surprisingly poor play of an experienced offensive line. With Ford and Pollard now gone, one of the big questions heading into the 2012 season is whether Young and Ferguson will emerge as legitimate running threats within the new-look offense.
QB Nathan Scheelhaase enters his junior year 6th on Illinois’ career offensive yardage list and 6th on Illinois’ career passing list. Scheelhaase has established himself as one of the better dual threat quarterbacks in the Big Ten, but his capricious performances last season lead Illini fans to wonder which version they will get for the 2012 season. In his first six games of 2011, Scheelhaase completed 80 of 120 passes (67%) for 1,238 yards, with 10 TDs and 4 INTs. Over his final six games, Scheelhaase completed 86 of 141 passes (61%) for 733 yards, with 2 TDs and 4 INTs.
Alright, prediction time. Given the questions surrounding the offense – Scheelhaase’s enigmatic play, the shifting offensive line, the holes at receiver, and the uncertainty at running back – it’s easy to imagine Illinois posting a seven or eight loss season. But it’s also possible that Scheelhaase puts up big numbers in his third season under center, Young and Ferguson perform well in the backfield, and Millines and Harris join with a talented group of tight ends to form an impressive aerial attack. The defense will be good – it’s not a stretch to say Hawthorne, Spence, Buchanan, and Brown will all be playing on Sundays in the near future.
Prediction: The Illini take care of business at home and post a 7-5 record under new head coach Tim Beckman. Illinois goes bowling for the third straight year.