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Illinois Fighting Illini Postmortem 2014

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The rollercoaster of a season defied fan expectations at every turn Here's a look at what it was like to root for the Fighting Illini this year.

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David Banks/Getty Images

The heirarchy of the Big Ten can be identified by fan expectations. Ohio State fans expect to compete for the national title every year. Wisconsin fans have built up an expectation of a ranked team that will compete for the Big Ten title. The ambitions of Illini fans are simply to build a program that can consistently get to 6 wins. "Consistently" is important here because we had two BCS appearances followed by 5-7 seasons followed by 3 or fewer wins. Even a moderate amount of sustained success will do. What we really don't want is for Ron Zook to be considered the greatest Illinois coach since Pete Elliot.

Enter Tim Beckman and the 2012 disaster. Co-offensive coordinators splitting playcalling duties, 45-10 at an Arizona State team rebuilding from a similar 2011 season, blown out at home by Louisiana Tech, LASAGNA, skoal, two-touchdown home loss to Indiana, 45-0 at Michigan, trampled by officials, 2-10 (0-8). You can't really make a worse first impression.

But with some staff changes, the Illini managed a 4-8 campaign in 2013 including two heartbreaking losses that could have really put the program on the upswing. Bringing us to 2014, Tim Beckman's third year. For all the buffoonery and the 1-15 conference record, Beckman's team had drastically improved from Zook's teams off the field. We were mostly getting academic qualifiers, players weren't getting arrested or missing games with a bullet wound to the hand (Trulon Henry in 2011; that actually happened) and the team GPA was the highest it had ever been. These are some things you do if you want to build a solid program where your leaders are redshirt seniors every year. 2014 would be the year we determined if Tim Beckman could really build this program. Year three, some staff continuity established, a lot of his players on the roster.

Pre-season Outlook: Six wins and a bowl game is the minimum and if we do that, Beckman keeps his job. Offensively we should have a dynamic passing attack with Wes Lunt bolstered by an experienced offensive line. Receiving corps is young, but Josh Ferguson will emerge as a premier dual-threat RB. Justin Duvernois is the man, but since we got Lunt, no more shall we punt. The defense returns an awful lot of starters and the secondary will for sure be better.
Outlook: 7-6

Week 1: Youngstown State.
Prediction: They've been a tough FCS team, but they're still FCS, and with our offensive and defensive lines returning some experience we should be able to run all over them
Result: W 28-17; trailed 17-7 in the second half; 1-0
Takeaway: We couldn't run the ball on these guys at all, and they were able to run the ball on us. This is not how an FCS game should look. If Lunt can hold up, we're gonna lose a lot of shootouts, but if we can't control the line of scrimmage against Youngstown State we could have serious problems.
Outlook: 6-7, because week 1 hiccups happen to everyone, Nebraska. Beckman stays

Week 2: Western Kentucky.
Prediction: This team hung a bunch on Bowling Green last week but our defense is better than it was last year, especially in the secondary. We ought to win big.
Result: W 42-34; trailed entering the fourth quarter; 2-0
Takeaway: Why does the offense not wake up until the fourth quarter?! This defense got lit up! Maybe it was a hot quarterback? It couldn't be that this defense really is still terrible, could it? Wes Lunt is going to have to be a wizard.
Outlook: 6-7...the offense will eventually show up in the first 3 quarters...Beckman stays

Week 3: At Washington.
Prediction: They beat us by 10 last year, but they lost a 4th year starter at quarterback and an NFL RB and TE, and the corners are vulnerable, and they have a first year coach...On the road. This should be a shootout.
Result: L 19-44; trailed 35-5 early in 2Q; 2-1
Takeaway: OH GOD COULD WE POSSIBLY PLAY A WORSE FIRST QUARTER? Wes Lunt is not totally ready yet but he's still our best option...Our offensive line might suck! Did Tim Beckman really say "we won the second half"? They pulled their starters and ran out the clock!!!
Outlook: 5-7...maybe Washington is really really really good?!?! (These were things fans were saying)...Beckman stays if we get to a bowl?

Week 4: Texas State.
Prediction: This is just about the worst defense in the country, a pretty new FBS program and a game we should have no trouble winning by 5 touchdowns
Result: W 42-35; trailed going into the 4Q; 3-1
Takeaway: Down 14-6 and having punted again, the game got lightning delayed. This was a very dark time for Illinois football. We got to stew for 2 hours on what this meant for our season. I put away an alarming amount of Admiral Nelson. Eventually we won...but...what the hell was that?
Outlook: 4-8, because at least we'll beat Purdue...Beckman had better beat Purdue or he's gone

Week 5: at Nebraska
Prediction: Curious to know why we have to go to Nebraska 2 years in a row. Abdullah will destroy us, but we ought to put up some points
Result: L 45-14; led 14-7 after 1Q; 3-2 (0-1)
Takeaway: Reilly O'Toole made a surprise start, as Wes Lunt was hurt at the end of the Texas State game. Throw this game out; we can't win with that guy anyway
Outlook: 4-8. Next week on Beckman.

Week 6: Purdue
Prediction: We won on the road 21-16 in one of the worst games I've ever seen, but we're better than last year and we're at home, so we should win by at least 14. Purdue is terrible.
Result: L 38-27; 3-3 (0-2)
Takeaway: BURN EVERYTHING. BURN IT ALL DOWN. TO THE GROUND. DC Tim Banks should be shot into the sun for allowing 342 yards on 7 plays. The terrible offensive line finally got Wes Lunt's leg broken. Bet he wishes he were somewhere else. Fire Beckman NOW.
Outlook: 3-9. FIRE BECKMAN

Week 7: at Wisconsin
Prediction: I started Melvin Gordon this week in my college fantasy football league
Result: He put up 55 points. L 38-28; 3-4 (0-3)
Takeaway: Defying my expectations again, Beckman proceeded to demonstrate that, in fact, I could be more pissed off than I was about losing to Purdue. There had been debate about starting redshirting sophomore Aaron Bailey, a 4-star dual threat QB who is talented but still raw. O'Toole played 3 quarters and we figured Beckman was willing to keep Bailey's redshirt in a lost season. Wisconsin goes up 38-14, and who should enter the game but Aaron Bailey?! He proceeds to score two of the saddest touchdowns I've ever seen.
Outlook: 3-9, midseason firing possible. SUPERFIRE BECKMAN.

Week 8: Bye
Prediction: :'(
Result: :'(
Takeaway: :'(
Outlook: :'(

Week 9: Minnesota (Homecoming)
Prediction: David Cobb will run right through our strange gray uniforms that don't have the school colors on them. I guess the colors orange and blue were so embarrassed by the season to this point that they wouldn't show up to the naked eye.
Result: W 28-24; 4-4 (1-3)
Takeaway: To this day I'm not sure I understand how this happened. Our DC appears to have actually made adjustments and the gambles he took actually paid off. By stopping Cobb, we forced Leidner to throw, and the result was a tremendous amount of incompletions. Somehow, Minnesota couldn't stop Reilly O'Football, who got away with some terrible throws. We got every bounce in this game, and the 44,437 (ugh) in the house for homecoming (UGH) went nuts when we went ahead on the V'Angelo Bentley fumble return. If the defense plays like this and the Reilly O'Football package is this effective, maybe we can lose some of our remaining games close
Outlook: 4-8. We used up all our lucky bounces in this one, but it was fun for a day. FIRE BECKMAN, but wait until the end of the season

Week 10: at Ohio State
Prediction: At #13. Primetime night game. Coming off a huge win. Showdown against his former mentor. Shades of 2007. A career backup looking for redemption---------lol no we gettin rekt
Result: rekt; 4-5 (1-4)
Takeaway: lol. The Urban Meyer coaching tree features a lot of successful coaches and Tim Beckman, who will not be here much longer
Outlook: 4-8
In Retrospect: Trailing 48-0, I thought "damn, i mean any other team would at least have lucked their way into a score by now." Wisconsin would prove me wrong.

Week 11: Bye

Week 12: Iowa
Prediction: You know, we won off our last bye, and this offense is far from impressive, and we haven't lost to them since 2007 (1-0 since then lolscheduling). This is a toss-up.
Result: L 30-7; spent most of the game trailing 9-7; 4-6 (1-5)
Takeaway: I've never seen a coach try so hard to lose only to come away with a 30-7 win. We had Wes Lunt back and it was all Lunt'n'Punt. The Wes Lunt hype is at an all-time low, although you can't blame him for the spectacularly bad pass protection. Justin Duvernois is a hell of a punter.
Outlook: 4-8; BECK FIREMAN

Week 13: Penn State
Prediction: Our offensive line is gonna get manhandled; Sackenberg might make our defense look pretty good though. We lose a game that could get uglier than M00N, but I hope it doesn't come down to a field goal because both our kickers are terrible and can't even kick off in bounds.
Result: W 16-14 on a late field goal; 5-6 (2-5); David Reisner, who would go on to kick the worst field goal attempt I've ever seen, named B1G Special Teams Player of the Week
Takeaway: Reilly O'Football is apparently a thing, as he replaced an ineffective Wes Lunt. Once again, the defensive scheme actually worked, and though the offense couldn't get in the end zone more than once, Reisner somehow made 3 FG's. Are we figuring out how to play football?
Outlook: 5-7, because a heartbreaker next week would be so Illinois. Fire Beckman, but at least he tried.

Week 14: at Northwestern
Prediction: They've lost some key contributors, but a bizarre and heartbreaking loss seems so appropriate
Result: W 47-33; 6-6 (3-5)
Takeaway: Wow, this team actually showed up! More importantly, their opponent did not! Northwestern fans, you may be surprised to know that I did not consider this game won until the final whistle, because we kept getting turnovers and not scoring touchdowns. This kept a nightmare scenario alive (the very nightmare scenario that played out for the Packers against the Seahawks) in my mind, and since nightmare scenarios do sometimes happen, I wasn't about to take anything for granted. Mike Dudek is a great receiver and Tim Beckman deserves credit for finding him.
Outlook: 6-6, because it sure does look like we'll be screwed out of a bowl game. You can't really FIRE BECKMAN now, can you? This is weird.

Heart of Dallas Bowl vs. Louisiana Tech
Prediction: This is a pretty good team, but this should be a toss-up. Either way WOOO BOWL GAME
Result: L 35-18; 6-7 (3-5)
Takeaway: Former Illini Houston Bates wrecked us. A really bad call in that game did us in, but ultimately getting to a bowl was the goal all along and they did it

End of Season Rundown: Tim Beckman did what we all wanted him to do, and yet we're still divided on whether or not he should be at Illinois and what next year is going to look like. I didn't think 6-7 could be so ugly, but buried in all that ugliness is the best win of his career (against Minnesota) and the 5th convincing win of his tenure at Illinois. Three conference wins is better than we did in 2011. Met expectations but took a ridiculous and inconceivable path to get there.

2015 Outlook:There's still so many questions. Nobody could have envisioned the loss of Reilly O'Toole being a game-changer for the offense heading into 2015. Will the offensive line allow Wes Lunt to succeed? Will Wes Lunt even start? Will Aaron Bailey transfer?! Why do we have to keep playing Ohio State every year? Who will punt things? Can we get back to a bowl in 2015?

Neither side of the ball will lose very many players for 2015, which is a testament to how thin our recruiting was from 2010 to 2012. The type of program Beckman is trying to build is the type of program I want to have. Is the man truly a doofus? He made comments after the Iowa game about taking care of business and getting the 7th win in a bowl. I literally laughed out loud. Then they got to that bowl by outplaying Coach Hype's squad and outcoaching Fitzy. Would you like an explanation for how this came to pass? If so, welcome to the club. We have a lot of beer. Our motto is "We Don't Know What To Make Of The 2014 Fighting Illini."

One thing's for sure though; late in the season with their backs against the wall, they fought. Unlike the Zook teams, there's probably not a single player that will go in rounds 1-3 on this roster. They've won 3 of their last 5 conference games, and even with all those question marks, I can't help feeling like the Illini can at least stay at this level in 2015.