Step into the Champaign Room with me this afternoon. Tom Fornelli, the lead writer on SB Nation's newest blog has done an excellent job of writing about the Fighting Illini, which can be exciting for basketball but sometimes more of a challenge than writing about Indiana in football. He faced my hard-hitting questions for this week's Q&A:
T-Mill: What is with Nathan Scheelhaase and why has he seemingly regressed every season?
Tom: I wouldn't say he's regressed every season, as his numbers during his sophomore season were actually better than his freshman season in every area but touchdown passes, but even that was more a byproduct of the offense as a whole than Nate. Last year is when he took the big step back, and I don't think that can be blamed solely on him either. He had a new coaching staff and offense to learn but then he got hurt early in the season and missed some time. Then, while we can't know for sure, we're fairly certain he came back at less than 100%. And he then proceeded to get hit about a billion times as the Illini offensive line gave up sacks at an alarming rate. He spent more time running for his life in the pocket than looking downfield for receivers. I am optimistic that with the new offense the Illini will be running under Bill Cubit he'll have a bounce-back season as long as he stays healthy, though. So by the time he plays his final game in an Illini uniform, he won't have had the career we all anticipated following his freshman season, but I do think he'll put a nice cap on it.
T-Mill: Last year was pretty much a disaster under Tim Beckman. Is it already too early to start thinking about pulling the plug?
Tom: I think so, yes. Last year was a disaster, but it's not as if Tim Beckman was stepping into a great situation. It's important to remember that the team he took over lost its final six Big Ten games of the year before beating UCLA in a very boring bowl game featuring two teams without a head coach. And then, if you remember last year's NFL Draft which featured a whole lot of Illini going in the early rounds, a bunch of talent left. Ron Zook's last couple of recruiting classes weren't very strong, and as a result, there wasn't a lot of depth on this team. So Beckman took over a team without a lot of depth and then the injuries hit and things just spun out of control.
Now, Tim and the coaching staff didn't exactly inspire a lot of confidence in the fan base with some of the gameday decisions, but Beckman seemed to feel the same given all the turnover we've had on the staff this offseason.
So, yes, I think right now is too early to really consider pulling the plug -- though a lot of Illini fans felt differently about this, particularly at the end of last season -- but if things don't improve this year, then I wouldn't be very surprised to see changes made. Though even then I'd still think it was too early, as I think every coach should get at least three years. It's important to remember that in their first two seasons in Champaign Ron Turner and Ron Zook combined to go 7-37. In their third seasons the Illini went 17-8 and Zook's third year ended in the Rose Bowl.
T-Mill: Most people project the Purdue-Illinois game as a battle for last place in the Leaders Division. How do the Fighting Illini climb out?
Tom: The beginning of the season will be huge for this team given how things finished last year, which is why it's a bit unfortunate that the Illini have to play both Cincinnati and Washington in the first three weeks of the season. But if things get off to a bad start in non-conference and then they open Big Ten play with a road game against Nebraska and a home game against Wisconsin, things could spiral out of control quickly.
On the other hand, a 3-1 start to the year will give this team some confidence that I believe it sorely lacked last season. I don't think confidence alone turns the program around, but it would certainly help.
Tom: I don't think that back is on the roster right now, which isn't a knock on any of the backs the Illini do have. For instance, I think Donovonn Young is a good back and he's a much better fit in Bill Cubit's offense than he was in the spread option sideline-to-sideline stuff the Illini had been doing. But while I think Young will have a good season, this just isn't the kind of offense that's going to see running backs put up huge numbers as it's a pass-first system now.
T-Mill: Is the Purdue game really a rivalry for Illinois fans are are most like, "What is the Cannon?"
Tom: One of the things I've always lamented about Illinois football is that we really don't have a true rival. Yeah, Illini fans hate Ohio State and Michigan, but every other Big Ten school does and neither of those schools have any reason to hate Illinois. Beckman has tried to turn Northwestern into a rival, but that's not ever going to happen until both teams are good at the same time.