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B1G 2015 // Illinois Cocktail Party

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Defying expectations, Illinois scratched and clawed its way to a bowl game last season. What, then, can be expected from the Illini moving forward?

Illinois unveils its devastating two-ball trick play. Yes, several flags were thrown.
Illinois unveils its devastating two-ball trick play. Yes, several flags were thrown.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

About Last Season

The Good News

Illinois made it back to a bowl game! Hm? What happened there? We're not taking questions at the moment, thankyewverymuch. Anyway, Illinois' road back to the postseason involved springing upsets on both Minnesota and Penn State, a pair of teams who probably thought themselves somewhat above the Illini before those games were played. Tim Beckman's boys also asserted their claim as Chicago's Big Ten Team or Our State Our Hat or whatever their slogan aimed at Northwestern currently is by rolling the Wildcats in the regular season finale to retake the LOLHat.

The Bad News

They made a bowl game, sure, but boy did they ever ride the roller coaster to get there. 3 of the 6 victories needed to return to the postseason came against lower-tier competition. Illinois also couldn't solve its ongoing blowout issue, as 5 of its 7 losses on the season came by at least 15 points. Presumed program savior, QB Wes Lunt, looked good initially, but got hurt and showed enough rust when he came back that minimally-effective senior Reilly O'Toole had to step in and save Beckman's bacon.

The bowl game...did not go well. Facing a middling Louisiana Tech team, Illinois yielded a handful of huge plays that swung the Heart of Dallas bowl La Tech's way, including an 80-yard TD reception and a 69-yard INT return TD. The most stinging part may have been former Illini Houston Bates going Rambo on his former team to the tune of 4 1/2 sacks. Despite the poor result, this was the first bowl game of Tim Beckman's tenure.

On the Offensive Side of the Ball

The Good News

Illinois finally has a group of skill players that at least have to be respected. In the backfield, Josh Ferguson might finally get his due as the capable dual threat he is as a runner and receiver. The receiving corps of Mikey Dudek, Geronimo Allison, and Malik Turner will give Lunt plenty of chances to show that allegedly NFL-quality arm. Lunt figures to have a good shot at returning to form after spending all of last year either injured or rusty, and OC Bill Cubit's track record with lesser talent promises good things.

The Bad News

You'll notice the above section's silence regarding offensive line matters. That would be because there really isn't much to drum up excitement up front, and that underwhelming group lost multiple starters to graduation. The reason Lunt got hurt last year is because the line in front of him couldn't stop pass rushers from bashing Lunt into the turf. They were marginally better at run blocking, but the team still barely gathered 1,500 rushing yards over the season. O'Toole's graduation and Aaron Bailey's transfer mean that Lunt is the guy; if he gets hurt or underperforms, redshirt freshman Chayce Crouch is the only dude offering pressure behind him.

Finally, although Dudek had a sensational freshman season, he also tore his ACL during spring conditioning. He's targeting an October return, and the timeline on that injury has shortened in the last few years, but Illinois will still have to go at least the first month without him.

On the Defensive Side of the Ball

The Good News

There is, finally, a good deal of experience on this side of the ball. The secondary, in particular, features 3 returning senior starters with a ton of experience in Eaton Spence, Clayton Fejedelem, and V'Angelo Bentley. Linebackers Mason Monheim and T.J. Neal also qualify as "grizzled" at this point.

The Bad News

Experience is all well and good, but if that experience is in just getting trampled most of the time, how useful is it, really? Illinois held only 3 opponents- FCS Youngstown State, pass-allergic Minnesota, and offense-allergic Penn State- to fewer than 25 points. Even relatively powerless offenses like Iowa and Purdue scored with ease on the Illini. The line has a few decent pieces, but it was still really easy for teams to move the Illini front when they felt like it.

On Special Teams

The Good News

Ace return man V'Angelo Bentley returns, and he was very effective on both punts and kickoffs last season.

The Bad News

Longtime standout punter Justin DuVernois graduated. Illinois also couldn't settle on a placekicker last season, and both contestants, senior Taylor Zalewski and junior David Reisner, return to duke it out.

On the Schedule

Date Opponent
9/4/2015 Kent State
9/12/2015 Western Illinois
9/19/2015 at UNC
9/26/2015 Middle Tennessee State
10/3/2015 Nebraska
10/10/2015 at Iowa
10/24/2015 Wisconsin
10/31/2015 at Penn State
11/7/2015 at Purdue
11/14/2015 Ohio State
11/21/2015 at Minnesota
11/28/2015

Northwestern*

The Good News

The noncon should provide 3 easy wins again, and this time around the random P5 opponent is one the Illini should be able to handle, even on the road; a 4-0 start isn't out of the question. The road slate in conference is also manageable, as Purdue and Iowa should be within Illinois' reach and the Illini did pull upsets over Penn State and Minnesota last season.

The Bad News

Normally, having the 3 toughest games at home would be a good thing, but from where they are right now, it's hard to imagine an environment that would give Illinois enough of an edge to have a realistic shot at beating Nebraska, Wisconsin, or Ohio State. In that regard, a team which is probably still shooting for bowl eligibility might prefer those hard games be on the road so that every possible advantage is thrown onto games Illinois is likely to win. That last home game is also home in name only, as it will occur at Soldier Field, far closer to Northwestern's campus than Champaign.


If You're Talking to an Illini Fan, Don't Mention:

Player mistreatment (football division), player mistreatment (women's basketball division), Mike Thomas in general, probably still Cliff Alexander, sideline interference, sideline Skoal.

Do Mention:

Possession of Hat, returning to a bowl game (stop short of discussing results), baseball for sure, rubbing Penn State's nose in it.

B1G 2015: Illinois Week

OTE Wants You! to write for Illinois so we don't have to

MONDAY - Cocktail Party Preview (you just read this)

TUESDAY - Personnel Files/Smartest Guys in the Room

WEDNESDAY - Illinois Potluck

THURSDAY - Wild Card

FRIDAY - Hate or Get Real