116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Illinois Fighting Illini
ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
Big Ten West
: 4-8 (1-7 5th B1G Leaders)
Returning offensive starters (7)
: LT Simon Cvijanovic, TE Jon Davis, RB Josh Ferguson, LG Michael Heitz, C Alex Hill, RG Ted Karras, TE Matt LaCosse
Projected starting offense
: QB West Lunt, so., 6-5, 215; RB Josh Ferguson, Jr, 5-10, 195; WR Justin Hardee, jr., 6-1, 195; WR Geronimo Allison, jr., 6-3, 185; Martize Barr, sr., 6-0, 195; TE Jon Davis, sr., 6-3, 240; C Alex Hill, sr., 6-3, 315; RG Ted Karras, jr., 6-4, 300; RT Austin Schmidt, so., 6-6, 285; LG Michael Heitz, sr., 6-5, 305; LT Simon Cvijanovic, sr., 6-6, 310
Returning defensive starters (8)
: CB V'Angelo Bentley, MLB Mason Monheim, FS Zane Petty, DT Teko Powell, SS Eaton Spence, LB Mike Svetina, NT Austin Teitsma, STAR Earnest Thomas III
Projected starting defense:
DE Paul James, fr., 6-4, 240; DT Austin Teitsma, sr., 6-2, 290; DT Jihad Ward, jr., 6-6, 285; LEO Dawuane Smoot, so., 6-3, 250; WLB Mike Svetina, jr., 6-2, 235; MLB Mason Monheim, jr., 6-1, 235; STAR Earnest Thomas III, sr., 6-2, 210; CB V'Angelo Bentley, jr., 5-10, 190; CB Caleb Day, so., 6-1, 195; SS Eaton Spence, jr., 6-0, 185; FS Zane Petty, sr., 6-1, 200
Returning specialists (3)
: K Taylor Zalewski, j.r, 6-3, 220; P Justin DuVernois, sr., 6-1, 190; KR/PR V'Angelo Bentley, jr., 5-10, 190
WR Spencer Harris, WR Steve Hull, WR Ryan Lankford, OL Corey Lewis, QB Nathan Scheelhaase, LEO Houston Bates, LB Jonathan Brown, DL Tim Kynard
: QB Wes Lunt (6-5, 215), DL Jihad Ward (6-6, 285), WR Geronimo Allison (6-3, 185), WR Tyrin Stone-Davis (6-3, 195), DL Paul James (6-4, 240), OL Nick Allegretti (6-4, 300), DL Joe Fotu (6-3, 275)
Illinois showed signs of life after coming off a disastrous 2-10 in 2012, coach Tim Beckman's first season in Champaign. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, formerly Wester Michigan head coach (he won at Iowa in 2007), averaged nearly 130 more yards per game and, more importantly, the Illini went from 16.7 points a game to 29.7. Points are good. They are kind of what you're shooting for.
Cubit remained confident this spring, telling the Chicago Sun-Times: 'Last year we talked about going from worst to first in total offense in the [Big Ten]. We didn't accomplish that; we got to fifth. But I think we've got a chance to be the best offense in the conference.”
RB Josh Ferguson pushed ahead of senior Donovonn Young with a productive sophomore season (779 yards, seven TDs). Ferguson also was Illinois' No. 2 receiver (50 catches, 533 yards, four TDs). He's the only one among Illinois' top five receivers who's returning in 2014.
The Illini's defense wasn't there in ‘13 and will remain a question mark in ‘14. The Illini allowed 5.58 yards a carry, a losing number. Illinois had the worst run defense in the Big Ten by yards per carry, touchdowns and was 11th in total yards allowed on the ground. Perhaps the most mind-blowing defensive stat for Illinois last season was the 25 TD passes allowed to just three interceptions gained. The entire two-deep does, however, return in the secondary. Experience always helps.
A30 Youngstown State; S6 Western Kentucky, S13 at Washington; S20 Texas State, S27 at Nebraska; O4 Purdue; O11 at Wisconsin; O25 Minnesota; N1 at Ohio State; N15 Iowa; N22 Penn State; N29 at Northwestern
Beginning with a road trip to Seattle to face Washington, the Illini will face a stretch that could tell the fate of head coach Tim Beckman. The third-year coach faced real fire after his first season in 2012, when he sent a coterie of coaches out to State College to pillage the free agent players who were free to find new homes in the wake of NCAA/Sandusky and then was caught on camera with a can of chew on the sidelines (there also was a 2-10 record and signs of disarray). This will be a big national test for Washington first-year coach Chris Petersen. Illinois can be a player or a party favor here. From there, it's gimme Texas State (actually, that's an FBS school now and might be somewhat of a test), at Nebraska, Purdue and at Wisconsin. By mid-October, we'll know if Illinois is a player in the west division or not.
I think we all can agree Iowa-Illinois is a rivalry game, right? Yes, the two teams haven't met since 2008, but the schools share a border, are about a five-hour drive apart and recruit in a lot of the same grounds. So, keeping in mind that Iowa-Illinois is a rivalry matchup (no trophy, but that's OK, you can have a rivalry without a trophy), it's kind of hard to make a case that Iowa is Illinois' trap game. But here we go: The Illini travel to Ohio State, which is a trophy rivalry (the IlliBuck is a thing), enjoy the spoils of a bye week, take on Iowa and then play host to Penn State. The bye week softens the 'trap” possibilities, but Ohio State and Penn State are heavyweights.
(Digression: Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern and Maryland have bye weeks before facing the Hawkeyes. It's not a huge factor, but might raise the degree of difficulty.)
Let's start with Wes Lunt. He started five games as a true freshman at Oklahoma State in ‘12 before injuries derailed his season. The Cowboys' depth chart overloaded and Lunt saw opportunity in his home state (he's a native of Rochester, Ill.). Lunt was the first true frosh QB to start for OSU since at least 1950. His best game was 436 yards and four TDs at Arizona. He finished the season 81 of 131 for 1,108 yards, six TDs and seven interceptions.
There's nothing official - it's June, no need to be in a rush - but none of the QBs on the Illini's roster has the arm and accuracy that Lunt has. Cubit's offense can be productive if it's paired with the right QB, a strong-armed pocket passer. That's Lunt.
Remember when Iowa WR Kevonte Martin-Manley led the Big Ten for most of the season after two TD returns against Western Michigan? He was caught at the end of the season for the conference title. Illinois cornerback V'Angelo Bentley averaged 15.75 yards on 12 attempts (just edging Martin-Manley's 15.7 on 20 attempts). He was the first Illinois player in school history with a kick and punt return for a TD in the same season.
One last half-full element might be the running game. Illinois returns four starters on the O-line (and 96 career starts), including left tackle Simon Cvijanovic. Also, Ferguson is an experienced runner.
The defense still needs a lot of work. Illinois signed 10 defensive players in the 2014 class to help its case. The Illini do return five of their top six on the D-line, but will that be enough? Illinois dipped into junior colleges to fortify the front. Of that group, maybe 6-6, 285-pounder Jihad Ward pans out. He has a pro body. Four-star defensive end Paul James (6-5, 240) also is starter potential. Juco Joe Fotu (6-3, 275) also could challenge.
Illinois simply wasn't disruptive enough on defense last season. That remains questionable for ‘14. Illinois finished with just 14 sacks and three interceptions in ‘13. The juco personnel infusion does work, but it's hardly a guaranteed way out. This is Beckman's third season. A fourth might ride on his defense trading punches.
The Illini allowed 5.58 yards a rush and 8.2 yards a pass attempt last year. Those are huge numbers and they probably won't shrink greatly in one season.
The Iowa angle:
This is a prelude to how it's going to be in the Big Ten for the near future (read: Iowa and Illinois will play each other every season as long as there's not another round of B1G expansion, and there's nothing going down that we know of).
The last time Iowa met Illinois it was a 27-24 thriller and it was 2008, with George W. Bush serving as president. Then, weird scheduling quirks and two expansions (Nebraska 2010 and then Rutgers/Maryland last year) kept the two schools that are a five-hour car ride apart.
The best thing, in my opinion, about this round of expansion is the Big Ten west. It's always going to have the 'little brother” tag, something that won't go away until it establishes a period of dominance over the east. That's unavoidable and, who knows, maybe it plays out that way? Still, the Big Ten west will offer up a continuous parade of matchups between Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota and Northwestern. It's up to the B1G west to carry the flag into meaningful matchups, but, at the very least, you'll be playing your neighbors. The rivalries won't need any building.
Will Illinois run defense stand up against Iowa? Will Iowa's defense be able to slow down an offense that will have a new QB but pretty good sense of self (including four returning starters on the OL)? There are a lot of potentially interesting storylines for the Nov. 11 game. Here's two: 1) Will Iowa be in the hunt for the west division title? 2) Will Beckman be on the hot seat? It remains to be seen for the Hawkeyes, but that hot seat thing already is a go for Beckman.
'I want to be here. I love the University of Illinois. This has been a dream for me. I don't want to be anywhere else. I really feel that this program can be considered one of the tops in the country consistently. Is it three years? Everything I've wanted, I've been able - and I want to continue - to do here. But I don't make that decision. It could be [made] based on how many football games we win; that would make it easy. I'm going to try my hardest to make sure that these football players who are playing for us at the University of Illinois [have] a better experience than the year before.” - Illinois coach Tim Beckman in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times on whether or not three seasons is too soon to be coaching for your job
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