Illinois’ Beckman has most important question to answer

 

20140728_mmbigtenmedia0354There are many questions heading into the 125th season of Illinois Fighting Illini Football.

How will quarterback Wes Lunt perform after not playing in a game for two years?

Will junior college transfers, such as Jihad Ward, make the difference for the Illini to become a bowl-eligible team?

Can the defense make the jump the offense made last year with offensive coordinator Bill Cubit?

These questions will be answered in some form as the season progresses. The main question that many Illini fans are asking is not whether Illinois will win more football games. It is very likely that they will. Rather, the question is whether Tim Beckman will lead the Illini to enough wins to make it to a bowl game, and maybe save his job.

Beckman has an overall record of 6-18 at Illinois, with only one Big Ten win. Athletic Director Mike Thomas has wanted to see progress from the football team. The Illini have increased their win total each year and are bound to win more this year, with a more mature and balanced team.

Offense

The offense will try to continue its rise in rankings under Cubit’s second year on the job. Last year, the Illini rose to a No. 23 FBS passing ranking, averaged 287.7 yards per game and averaged 29.7 points per game, No. 62, according to ESPN.

Now Lunt will have the task of continuing the trend that Cubit and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase started. Lunt was named the starting quarterback after a three-way competition between Reilly O’Toole and Aaron Bailey concluded two weeks before the first game of the season. His arm is impressive and he is a prototype quarterback that Illinois has not had for a long time.

Lunt’s receiving corps will be brand new as well. Seniors Spencer Harris and Steve Hull left a hole in the group when they graduated last year. However, Geronimo Allison, Martize Barr and Justin Hardee are all listed as starters and had good camp. Also, watch out for freshmen Malik Turner and Mike Dudek. Both made good impressions at camp and will see plenty of playing time during the season.

The most important factor that the offense has heading into the season is that all offensive linemen are returning starters. The line is mature and familiar with each other. Under the guidance of the veteran offensive line coach Tom Brattan, who was hired during the offseason, the line is strong enough to protect Lunt and also create room for the running backs.

Defense

The defense will be improved and more mature when it takes the field against Youngstown St. on Saturday. It’s hard to have that bad of a season two years in a row. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks almost lost his job due to the defense that was on the field. The defense couldn’t tackle in the open-field, cause disruption to the quarterback, or create turnovers. Part of the blame, Beckman admits, was due to playing many athletes when they were too young.

However, due to playing at such a young age, these players have both the maturity and the experience that was missing the past season. Such is the case with Mason Monhiem. Look for him to be the leader of the linebacker corps of DeJazz Woods and T.J. Neal Jr. that will be ready to make those open-field tackles.

The defensive line will be more experienced. The line will use more rotations, allowing for more rest as well as more bodies to get a chance to try to get to the quarterback. Jihad Ward has been a great story throughout fall camp, but now he needs to transfer that field too.

V’Angelo Bentley had a great season as a cornerback, as well as a punt/kickoff returner. The secondary was young and had little experience, only forcing three interceptions. The experienced group of cornerbacks Bentley and Eaton Spence and safeties Zane Petty and Taylor Barton will be prepared for the task and are bound to force more turnovers.

Looking at the Schedule

The nonconference portion of the schedule for the Illini should guarantee three wins for the Illini. The team should handle Youngstown St., Western Kentucky and Texas St. with no problem. Traveling to Seattle to play Washington is too much of a task for this team, and it will finish with a 3-1 nonconference record.

Wins at conference opponents Nebraska and Wisconsin seem unlikely and even without Braxton Miller, the Illini will have a hard time winning a game in Columbus. Iowa should have an easy time beating Illinois at Memorial Stadium and Purdue shouldn’t be a challenge for the Illini. With that, the overall record is 4-5.

The three opponents that are left, Minnesota, Penn St. and Northwestern, are toss ups. Illinois can beat the Gophers on homecoming day and nearly beat Penn St. last year, so maybe home will make the difference.

Now the record is 6-5. Northwestern might still be in the same position. This game most likely will have meaning, unlike last year’s matchup. The Illini might be just too strong for the Wildcats and will sneak away with a win.

Thus, Illinois will have a 7-5. With those three games, they can have a 4-8 record again. But this year’s team is better, and this year, Beckman will have the answers.

 

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