Tom Fornelli has the unenviable task of covering Illinois football this season and he answers my questions about the Battle for the Purdue Cannon.
The Big Ten blogging contingent is once again complete. Over the summer the fine Hail to the Orange closed up shop, but the Fighting Illini are once again represented with Tom Fornelli taking over for Joe Kutsunis and establishing The Champaign Room. This week his Illini will host the Boilers in the battle for our rivalry trophy, The Purdue Cannon. I say it is our trophy because we currently possess it and, well, it has our name right there on it.
It hasn't been fun to talk Illinois football this year, but Tom is still doing it:
T-Mill: Be of good cheer! Tim Beckman won at Purdue with Toledo in 2010, so you have an advantage this week! In that regard, what is the main reason behind Illinois' struggles in year one?
Tom: I wish there was a main reason, but the truth is there are too many reasons. Whether it's Nathan Scheelhaase getting hurt early in the year and missing games, which has slowed his development in the new system, or the system itself. This is a coaching staff that has an offensive coordinator for first and second down and an offensive coordinator for third downs. That's actually happening here. There are just so many reasons! Talent, the system, the execution, everything. It's a problem.
T-Mill: I used to call Nathan Scheelhaase a poor man's Denard Robinson. Has he regressed or is the talent just not around him?
Tom: He is regressing, but I'm not sure its his fault. As I said in the previous question, he got hurt at the beginning of the year and missed a few games. So he's really still learning the offense and doesn't have a full grasp just yet. That being said, his offensive line is doing him no favors. The best way I can describe Nate right now is shell shocked. He's slow through his progressions and reads and missing open receivers, but that's because his first read right now is one receiver and his second read is OH MY GOD I'M ABOUT TO BE KILLED."
T-Mill: Illinois' defense still seems relatively strong. How do they match up with Purdue?
Tom: Not all that well, actually. Only Indiana has thrown more passes in the Big Ten than you have this season, and the weakness of this Illinois defense is its pass defense. If you guys want to change things up and run more than pass, I'd appreciate it. The Illini have the worst defensive pass efficiency in the conference at 149.13. Against the Big Ten it's actually worse at 154.42. We only give up about 200 yards passing per game because teams are often ahead and just looking to run out some clock.
So even though the Purdue passing attack hasn't exactly lit it up this season, look to be successful this week.
T-Mill: Quick basketball question: With the returning players does Illinois have a shot of making the NCAA Tournament this year?
Tom: I hope so. That's my goal this season. I don't need this team to be great, but I'd just like to see improvement over last season -- which shouldn't be hard! -- and a clear indication we are back on the right path. Through the first two games I like what I've seen from Groce's system, and things should improve as the team gets used to it. I also like what I've seen from Groce on the recruiting end of things. So, yeah, I think the tournament is a definite possibility, but it isn't necessary to be a successful season.
T-Mill: Finally, this is technically a rivalry trophy game. How do Illinois fans view The Cannon?
Tom: Honestly I'm not sure it's that big of a deal to most Illini fans. I know the Purdue Cannon exists but I can't guarantee you most fans do. Of course that could be because we haven't won it all that often around here lately! You guys have won it 9 of the last 12 times we've played for it. So if you'd like to raise awareness, you could let us have it this season. I mean, we really need something good to happen to this football program this season. Let us have a conference win? You got yours!