Illinois has had an up-and-down year. They’ve beaten Cincinnati 45-17 and forced Penn State to overtime before falling on the road 24-17, for instance; but they also ended up losing to Michigan State 42-3 and to Indiana in their most recent game 52-35.
The bottom line, though, is that the Fighting Illini are now 3-6 overall and have lost 19 straight conference games.
Despite head coach Tim Beckman being a former defensive coordinator, most of the team’s troubles have seemed to be concentrated on that side of the ball.
They are giving up almost 35 points a game, and four times this season, a running back has gouged Illinois for 200 yards or more. Home has not been a haven for Illinois, either. When you just take into account games at Memorial Stadium, the Illinis have given up almost 39 points a game.
Their offensive numbers are also worse at home (passing yards per game: 275 home, 316 away; rushing yards a game: 130 home, 149 away). More on that offense in just a minute.
First, back to the defense, the clear leader there is linebacker Johnathan Brown, who is ranked 20th nationally in tackles with 88. Fellow linebacker Mason Monheim is the second most prolific tackler on the team.
Up front, the defensive line hasn’t done much damage, only racking up 11 sacks this season. The secondary has been suspect as well, as Illinois is ranked tenth in the Big Ten in pass defense and 12th in pass efficiency defense. Plus, the team only has two interceptions, and one of those belongs to the linebacker Brown.
The Illinois offense underwent a makeover in the offseason. The improvement has been noticeable, even if not enough to yet win a league contest. Under coordinator Bill Cubit’s guidance, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has stepped up his performance. He has more passing yards/game (269) than any other Big Ten signal caller.
Scheelhaase is also coming off a career day vs. the Hoosiers, when he went 38 for 57 totaling 450 passing yards, all new marks for him. And he did this despite being without one of his weapons, because Receiver Ryan Lankford dislocated his shoulder and had season-ending surgery October 30th.
In Lankford’s absence, senior receiver and Cincinnati native Steve Hull could be called upon even more than he already has, but Illinois also has one of the better pass-catching running backs in the country in Josh Ferguson. He leads the club in catches and touchdown receptions.
The running game? Ferguson is their leading rusher as well, and he only goes for about 54 yards every time out. That’s part of the reason Beckman calls this their “Achilles Heel.”
Kicker Taylor Zalewski is 8/12 with a long of 40. Cleveland Glenville product V’Angelo Bentley, when healthy, has shown flashes of being a highly effective kick returner.
Still, Illinois will have to pull a major upset if Beckman is going to pull off a win this week. It seems much more likely he’ll have to wait to deliver on his guarantee of a conference victory this season.
And in case you’re wondering, the forecast right now calls for a 30 percent chance of rain, and winds from the south at 13 miles per hour.