NCAA Football Preview - Illinois Fighting Illini

8:24 AM, Aug 23, 2012   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: The 2011 campaign truly was a tale of two seasons for Illinois.

After jumping out to a 6-0 start, the only question facing the Fighting Illini seemed to be whether they could, in fact, go on to capture a Big Ten title. Entering a marquee matchup with underachieving Ohio State in mid-October, they were ranked 16th in the nation and appeared destined for a post-New Year's Day bowl. However, things changed in a hurry for the Illini, who fell to the Buckeyes 17-7 and were never able to recover.

That setback kicked off a string of six straight losses to finish off the regular season with a 6-6 mark. In fact, no other team in the history of the FBS had ever opened the regular season with six straight wins and went on to lose its final six. The offense all but shut down in that treacherous second half, prompting the dismissal of head coach Ron Zook in December. Illinois averaged just 11 points per game over the final six contests, after averaging nearly 35 points through the first six.

Still, their early-season efforts were enough to earn the Illini a New Year's Eve bowl matchup with UCLA. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning assumed the role of interim head coach and led the team to a 20-14 comeback victory, its first triumph since Oct. 8. It also marked the first time in school history that Illinois won consecutive bowl games, an unlikely accomplishment given the way the 2011 season unfolded.


OFFENSE: New head coach Tim Beckman is intent on changing the team's offensive identity, as evidenced by his hiring of LSU's Billy Gonzales and Vanderbilt's Chris Beatty to take over as co-offensive coordinators. Whereas former coordinator Paul Petrino preferred a run-heavy offense, Gonzales and Beatty will spread it out and take more shots down field.

Still, Beckman said it all starts with a commitment to the running game. Whether they have the weapons in place to orchestrate the new offense is a valid question. Nathan Scheelhaase is entering his third year as the starting quarterback, and the team's chances will hinge largely on his progression. Scheelhaase has eclipsed 300 yards passing only once in 26 career starts, and he has tossed eight interceptions in each of his first two seasons at the helm.

No longer will star wideout A.J. Jenkins, who nearly broke the school record for receiving yards, be at his disposal. Scheelhaase is the team's leading returning rusher, but for the Illini to improve upon last year's win total, he'll need to do more damage with his arm. Beckman said there would also be some personnel wrinkles.

"With the offense that we're installing in Champaign, it will be a dual-threat offense. You'll see two running backs in the football game at times. You'll even at times see two quarterbacks in the football game with Miles Osei lining up at running back also."

DEFENSE: The defense remains largely intact, despite the loss of All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who led the nation in sacks (16) and forced fumbles (9) a year ago. The other three defensive line starters return, anchored by senior Michael Buchanan, who racked up 7.5 sacks. With Mercilus no longer drawing double teams, the pressure will be on Buchanan to take his game to the next level.

The coaching staff is optimistic that junior linebacker Jonathan Brown can step into a leadership role after notching a team-best 108 tackles to go along with six sacks, although questions remain about his discipline.

In the secondary, all four starters return, and that continuity could go a long way. Taking over for Koenning at defensive coordinator is Tim Banks from Cincinnati. Schematically, he said most of the concepts will remain the same, while some new terminology must be learned. Last year's unit finished seventh in the nation in yards allowed.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Illinois' special teams ranked near the bottom nationally across the board in 2011. Spring practices did not sort out the depth chart, as position battles figure to loom on throughout summer camp and possibly into the season.

OUTLOOK: Beckman said at the Big Ten Kickoff that he is excited about his seniors' willingness to change.

"It is a culture change. There's no question about it, when you come in and you're in the process of reestablishing a program.

"When Michael Buchanan and Graham Pocic and Terry Hawthorne and Akeem Spence made the decision to come back and be a part of that, I sure hope that's the start of something special about being a senior and about being the leader of a football team."

Heading into the 2012 campaign, finishing is the primary message being delivered to the team. The stakes are certainly high for first-year coach Beckman, as another late-season meltdown will not sit well in Champaign. The team should be able to improve upon last year's 2-6 league mark, but a Big Ten title may be a bit optimistic.

The non-conference schedule features three opponents that went bowling a year ago. Come October, the Fighting Illini get into their Big Ten schedule with a couple of tough road games at Wisconsin and at Michigan in back-to-back weeks. They also must travel to Urban Meyer-coached Ohio State in early-November. Still, a third straight bowl appearance, and victory, is certainly possible.

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