B1G 2012 // OTE's Illinois Potluck: Steak or Beans 'n Weenies?

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Tim Beckman steps into Ron Zook's apparently very baggy pants at Illinois (via cdn0.sbnation.com)

Illini coach Tim Beckman embraces the choice and selection that a Potluck represents -- apparently it's a part of the training regime down in Champaign-Urbana, where winners of things like the Spring Game get steak, while losers get beans 'n weenies or porridge.

Here at OTE, we don't look down on beans 'n weenies, or think them an inferior substitute to steak -- we embrace all Midwest meat and casserole dishes. And while Illinois was in the "beans 'n weenies" lower-half of the B1G for most of Ron Zook's tenure, Beckman is hoping to turn things around and be eating steak in Pasadena (or at least end up in a bowl game against a team that didn't just fire its head coach).

So, follow the OTE writers (and special guest U-God, one of the thousands of two Illini fans who frequent our comments section) after the jump for 3400+ words as we discuss what Charlie Weis and Bo Schembechler have to do with offseason coaching hires in the B1G, investigate Beckman's past in the video-game scoring league that was the MAC, get Mercilus-less with the Illini defense, and discuss disproportionate hatred.....

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I don't know how to quit you, water-skiing Ron Zook....

1) Pigs-in-a-blanket: Water-skiing Ron Zook is gone. Long live.....the MAC-rificial (MAC-rific?) Tim Beckman? Admittedly, this hire didn't seem quite as impressive as hiring the OC of the Patriots (Bill O'Brien), or a 2-time national champion head coach (Urban Meyer). Then again, Tim Beckman has 3 years of head coaching experience for Toledo in the MAC, where he turned around a team in disarray, going 5-7, 8-5, 9-4 (so steady improvement), and other former MAC coaches have done pretty damn well in this league (see: Bo Schembechler, Mark Dantonio, Randy Walker, etc.). So is Tim Beckman and the MAC-seal of approval enough in this era of coaching excellence in the B1G? (Seriously -- look around. Lots of great coaches/names in this league)? Who is Tim Beckman, and what is his ceiling?

Ted Glover: Actually, I think Beckman's a more impressive hire than Bill O'Brien. He had a solid track record as an assistant, and was well into a turn around as the Toledo head coach. Short answer, yeah, he's a good coach for the Illini. He's a high energy guy that appreciates the history of the football program, and vows to heavily recruit St. Louis and Chicago. Talk is cheap, but he brings a level of competence that I never felt under Zook, so I think he definitely is the right guy to turn it around in Champaign. What is the ceiling? Well, if he can keep the Illinois kids home, and poach some guys from St. Louis, that's a pretty good start, and with good coaching gets them into contention in the Leaders division.

U-God: Wait, when did the Bill O'Brien hire go from underwhelming to impressive? Did I miss a memo on that one? Beckman inherited a moribund Toledo football program that was coming off of three consecutive losing seasons and a point shaving scandal. In his first year, he turned a 3-9 team into a 5-7 one. The next two years his teams won 8 games (7-1 in conference) and went to two bowl games. He's served under and learned from Tressel and Meyer. He comes with established recruiting ties in the region. He's built an impressive staff around himself. And for all the crap Zook gets, he left the program in better shape than he found it. And this program is in much better shape than the last one Beckman inherited. The first year or two might only be six win seasons, but I'm expecting 7-8 win seasons on the reg after that.

BabaOReally: I would be surprised if Bill O'Brien ends up being a better hire than Tim Beckman when all is said and done. I base this entirely off of Charlie Weis. Speaking of MAC pedigree, Urban Meyer was the head man at Bowling Green for a couple of years, so he will probably work out fine at Ohio State. As far as Beckman, I think he will be a good coach for Illinois. I like watching crazy shootouts on weeknights, so I enjoyed some Toledo football last year. It's not that MAC success is a guarantee of Big Ten success by any means, but if Illinois can put together an offense that is half as fun to watch as Toledo last year, I'll be glad he's a part of the conference.

MSULaxer27: I really don't have any "impression" of Beckman. Our B1G schools usually play their in state MACrifice schools so I can't say I ever remember seeing Toledo play (although weren't they involved with some kind of 65-62 3OT shoot out with WMU last year?). It just seemed like one of the head scratching hires...You're going to hire a B1G coordinator without any head coaching experience or a MAC head coach? It seems like a coin flip either way. OK. Hope that works out for you. At least it wasn't another re-tread.

2) Twice-baked Potatoes: Illinois scored 32.6 ppg in its 7 wins (counting the cripple fight that was the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl), and just 11 ppg in its 6 losses. That's an astonishing and very telling stat. Beckman's Toledo teams were an offensive juggernaut in the MAC (42.2 ppg in 2011). But Beckman's offense at Toledo is....well, in many ways, a similar spread offense to what the Illini ran last year. Can Beckman get Nathan Scheelhaase and the offense to improve enough to make this a better team in 2012? Or is Reilly O'Toole the answer in the huddle? In the case of the Illini, is Beckman enough of an improvement as an in-game coach and offensive mind (let's face it -- Zook was terrible as an in-game coach, as the end of the OSU game in 2011 attests) to make the Illini a Leaders challenger?

KennardHusker: Is that the largest W/L point deferential? I didn't realize it could really be quite that bad. Anyhow, I do think that Beckman is a step up in game day coaching. The recruiting remains to be seen overall, but I think his ability to put QBs in a position to succeed should work. That being said, I think a good place to start is to stop with all this two QB nonsense. As a team, the Illini were not awful as a rushing team (41st overall), so I don't think it's fair to place all the blame there, but when there is no continuity, it's hard to build momentum. In a spread offense, the key is to have a smart trigger man who can beat you with his feet if he gets in trouble. I have no idea how this all plays out, but whoever ends up behind center will need an O-Line to step up after looking mediocre for much of the backend of the season last year.

U-God: If there is one thing Tim Beckman did right at Toledo (there were more than one), it was build a terrifying offense. The team ranked in the top half of the NCAA in PPG each year he coached and the top 15 in YPG in two of them. In his first year full of his recruits, the team scored 42.2 PPG (8th in the nation) and racked up 481.3 YPG (tied with Boise State for 9th). The Zooker spread relied far more heavily on the QB acting as yet another running back than Beckman's Toledo offenses have. The Zook/Petrino days are thankfully over. Beckman does like to play musical QBs, but he actually makes it work. Last season, Toledo had two QBs throw for more than 1,400 yards with the top one throwing for 2,022. That's a combined 3,426 yards with 33 TDs to only 7 INTs! Expect to see plenty of Reilly O'Toole. Losing A.J. Jenkins (who just scored another touchdown against Northwestern) and OT Jeff Allen certainly hurts, but as long as Darius Millines foot stops falling apart I think the receiving corps should be okay, especially now that Terry "Black Cat" Hawtorne is playing both sides of the ball (Hawthorne was the 6th highest rated WR in the 2009 recruiting class). The team is more than deep enough at tight end and showcased some interesting formations playing up that strength at the spring game. Donovann Young and especially Josh Ferguson should thrive in the new system (and no longer having to watch Jason Ford eat up their carries and fumble them away). Last season was the first year since 2005 that Illinois didn't have a top ten rusher in the conference. Expect that to change.

Graham Filler: The #1 thing that Coach B can do is give the quarterback an identity. I've never been sure with Scheelhaase what his role was supposed to be. Is he the facilitator? Is he supposed to put the teams on his shoulders by running the ball more? What throws is he supposed to make?

BabaOReally: As far as offense goes, they are probably going to have some of the same issues that they did last year, but I expect it to get better as the season and subsequent years roll on. Obviously the defenses are going to be a lot better than what the MAC had to offer last year, but even with much of the same personnel, a competent decision-maker can help out a lot. I didn't watch Illinois play too much last season, but I did see them punt a few times on 4th and short inside of their opponents' 40. Zook's decision to punt on 4th and 3 down 21 in the second half from the Purdue 38 was one of the dumbest coaching decisions I have seen in person. I watched Toledo in some MACtion last year, and I can say for certain that Tim Beckman will not be punting in a similar situation. If the Illini improve upon last year's record, it will be because their offense will have improved because of their coaching.

MSULaxer27: Offense seems to be his specialty, right? Illinois, to me, is that team that just is there. Sure they'll go to a Rose Bowl every now and again but I'd be hard pressed to name players who have played for them besides Dick Butkus and Red Grange. They had some dude name Juice who played QB. I guess he's gone since now it seems they've got Irish McFitzIrish and some dude who sounds like he's German but most assuredly isn't. (This isn't my fault...we've gone two stretches in the last 12 years where we didn't play them for 3 years in a row and now they're in the other division). Zook could recruit so you figure there's got to be talent there. Maybe Beckman is moving into a Hoke/Michigan situation rather than a Kill/Minnesota or Wilson/IU situation. Hoke wasn't considered a knockout hire before he tripped into his success at UM.

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Sure, Whitney Mercilus is a bad ass name, but I hear Beckman's recruiting a guy named Mariah Holocaust.
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via cdn3.sbnation.com)

3) Steak: While the offense stumbled in losses, the Illini defense was pretty stellar all last season -- the Illini finished 2011 a top-15 defense in a number of different defensive categories. Still, this wasn't enough....Illinois was only 7-6. Beckman's Toledo defenses struggled mightily in an admittedly offensively-focused conference (they yielded 31.6 ppg in his final season....and no, that is not a typo). But while Whitney Mercilus left early for the NFL (what a phenomenal name), Beckman did manage to talk defensive play-makers like Michael Buchanan, Terry Hawthorne, and Akeem Spence to stay in Champaign-Urbana. Can Beckman coax improvement out of what was already a pretty strong defense? Or is the defense carrying its weight, and the Illini will have to find improvement out of the offense (a stronger O-line, less fumbles from the RBs, somehow replacing A.J. Jenkins)?

KennardHusker: I think that to answer this, it's important to give a little slack to Beckman and his defensive record. The MAC isn't a major conference, but teams were not afraid to do what it took to put points on the board. They were fast paced spread offenses with mad scientist types trying to do what they could on the sidelines to get the ball in the endzone. Defense became somewhat optional all over the conference, and all things considered, you gotta think that the style played a part. So when Beckman came in and told a bunch of guys, "Hey, you're good at defense, I'm good at offense. Let's do this thing!" It probably sounded awesome. If Illinois keeps up that defense from last year AND manages to score a few more points in hostile environments, there will be marked improvement.

U-God: The defense is likely to take a step back as well. Losing All-World DE Whitney Mercilus hurt. So did losing DC Vic Koenning. The returning talent will keep it from being much of a dropoff though. Michael Buchanan, fourth in the conference in sacks, is back. Jonathan Brown, 7th in tackles despite a one game suspension, is entering his junior year and gunning for All-Conference. Akeem Spence and Terry Hawthorne will both be as good as ever. And it's not as if new DC Tim Banks is any slouch. Banks ran a Cincinnati defense that ranked second in the nation in sacks last season and 20th in the nation in PPG. Hell, they were even 18th in interceptions! The more I stop and think about it, the less I worry about losing Vic. Oh yeah, and Keith Gilmore, the man who created Whitney Mercilus, is still in Champaign. The main switch is going to be no longer having Ron Zook butchering special teams play. Illinois was in the bottom ten the past three years in punt returns. They were in the bottom third in kickoff returns and coverage over that same period. New ST coach Tim Salem ran one of the best units in the country down at Central Florida. Put Terry Hawthorne in his hands (and whatever recruits he chooses to bring in) and watch those rankings flip.

Graham Filler: Illinois' defense hit a perfect storm last year: Not only did they have great veteran leadership at key positions, but a few players (Mercilus) came out of the woodwork to become stars. PLUS, the B1G wasn't good at all offensively. Let me list all the impotent offenses from last year's B1G: Minnesota, Penn State, Indiana, Illinois, OSU, Purdue. That's half the league.

So can they improve on that stellar defensive performance? I doubt it. But that doesn't mean we won't see a defense that finishes in the Top 30 nationally. The experience and talent and understanding of how to play defense in the B1G is all there.

BabaOReally: I don't really expect the Illini defense to improve under Beckman, as they were already by far the stronger unit last year. I don't expect there to be a massive drop-off either. Even though the Rockets ranked 94th in points against last year, some of that was due to the craziness of the MAC and the tendency of his fast-paced offense to put up points quickly. Beckman was the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State before he landed the Toledo gig, so he probably knows something about defense.

MSULaxer27: The defense was good last year. Very good. If they can hold serve and Beckman can get the offense clicking they could challenge in the topsy turvy leaders division of 2012. Once again sorry for the nondescript passage, but if you told me Illinois was leaving the B1G to take Missouri's place in the Big XII, I'd shrug and quizzically say OK.

4) Strawberry Shortcake: So, this is my weekly column, and the last question is always somewhat random. Not so this week. The Illini are supposedly Northwestern's rivals, so I should (and do) hate them....but that hatred is empty and lonely (much like Champaign-Urbana) when the Illini and their fans can't even bother to care about football. The Illini have seen 3 straight years of declining attendance (down nearly 10k in 3 years), and last year set a record by collapsing with 6 straight losses after a 6-0 start. So what team do you wish you could hate more, but can't, because they just don't reciprocate the hatred? And what team in the B1G do you just not understand because they consistently fail to bring what you believe is the proper level of B1G passion in football?

Ted Glover: Rather than saying who I hate that doesn't hate me back, I'll flip this question around. As a native Minnesotan, I should loathe Iowa. I don't, and I can't. Most of my family lives/is from Iowa, I really respect Kirk Ferentz and the program that has built, and the Iowa City game day experience is one of the top in the B1G. And Chad, don't take this the wrong way, but Northwestern has had some pretty good and competitive teams for the better part of a decade, yet there seems to be more indifference towards the Wildcats than any other conference team. After so many years of ineptitude and incompetence, I would've thought there would be more of a following and attachment towards the Wildcats, but it just doesn't seem to be there.

KennardHusker: Wish I could hate more? Well, do I get to choose Northwestern because I really hate the fact that they KEEP FREAKING BEATING NEBRASKA AT STUFF?!?! Seriously, though, I think Nebraska gets reciprocated hate pretty much anywhere I would start looking. Let's see... The Entire Big XII (or artists formerly known as Big XII members), Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, Iowa, the Florida Schools, etc. See, while they may not drum up the hate daily (and vise versa), if given the choice of Nebraska and anyone else, I promise these people choose anyone else. As for proper level of B1G passion, I don't know if this is a completely fair question for me to answer. I haven't followed the conference long enough to know specifically how deep the passion goes. From what I can tell, it runs deep for each fanbase... especially when they are playing rivalry games.

U-God: I feel like Illinois gets kind of cheated for a football rival. True, we haven't had consistent enough success on the gridiron to warrant much hate since before most OTE readers and commenters were born. But look at who are natural rivals are. How is someone not from Purdue supposed to hate Indiana football? The last time we played Iowa in football was before I could legally purchase my own alcohol and I turn 24 in less than two months. And while Northwestern fans can get all cute and tough online, no one has every actually seen one in person. Do they travel to away games? Is Chad secretly a spam program created by Jon and Graham? It's easy to pick on Indiana fans for "lacking Big Ten football passion", but what's the point? Illinois is kind of like the Kansas State (my new school) of the Big Ten when it comes to football rivalries. The lack of sustained success of both itself and natural geographical rivals makes it hard to have an actual passionate rival.

BabaOReally: As a Purdue fan, this is incredibly easy. 1) Notre Dame 2) Indiana.

MSULaxer27: I'm not sure all the answers to these questions, but this one definitely involves the state of Indiana.

1) Notre Dame. MSU has played ND in mens team sports more than any other school in the country. Yet you'd be hard pressed to get any subway domer fan or alum to mention MSU if you asked them who their rivals are: Usually it's USC, UM and then if you press them they might say NAVY or BC. Growing up in NY, I would rather beat ND than UM...but that's because I spent most of my life dealing with their douche bag subway alumni. All the UM "fans" I ever met were alums and therefore educated and reasonably literate. Not so with the unwashed masses that root for Notre Dame but couldn't tell you the school is in Indiana.

2) My knee jerk reaction was to say IU. In fact, I almost asked how there could be any acceptable answer other than IU. Then I did some research. IU has consistently drawn around 41K the last three seasons (2009-2011). They even had a jump of 10K coming off the 2008 3-9(1-7) tire fire season. I repeat, they drew 41K even though they went 1-11. However, if you look up the road in West Lafayette you'll see a school that 'only" out drew IU by less than 4K while going to (and winning) a bowl game en route to their best season in 4 years. Are Indiana's B1G teams an acceptable answer to this part?

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