Penn State will travel to Memorial Stadium this fall, facing a team that, well, is likely still pissed this happened last season. The Nittany Lions haven't been great in Big Ten road openers the last decade or so, but were able to put a pretty good smackdown on the Illini last time the two teams met in Champaign.
With two new head coaches on both sidelines this year, with new systems and a good number of new starters all around, this Big Ten opener has the chance to go either way. It could send the loser down a hole it might not be able to scrape out of by the end of 2012, while sending the winner bowling.
Let's take a look at the new, Zooker-less Fighting Illini...The Past Few Seasons...
The Ron Zook years for Illinois football was probably one of the most frustrating tenures in America. The Illini were constantly out-recruiting other programs, yet were never able to string together successful seasons. Zook led his team to an unlikely Rose Bowl trip in 2007, in what seemed to be the corner turned by Illinois. With stars returning in 2008, it was supposed to be at least a decent bowl campaign, but ended in another holiday season sitting on the couch watching the rest of the Big Ten play football.
Illinois' fortune wouldn't get any better in 2009. The Illini fell to a dismal 3-9, causing many to question if Zook was able to bring his team back from the brink. The following season, Illinois did come back from the brink, with a campaign that only finished 7-6, but included three losses by a combined eight points. Things were looking up for 2011, as the season got off to a start unseen in Champaign since 1951... 6-0. Glory wasn't in the cards, however. Illinois dropped its next six, including an embarrassing blowout at the hands of Minnesota. That season finale cost Zook his job, as he was fired before the bowl game.
In comes Tim Beckman from Toledo, where he worked wonders reviving a program that was in the tank. Can he get the job done for Illinois?
Illinois has a nice balance of starters returning, even if they lose key contributors like RB Jason Ford (leading rusher), WR AJ Jenkins (#1 Draft Pick by San Fran), and LB Ian Thomas (#2 tackler). The defense brings back three of four starters from 2011, plus Justin Staples who started three and played in all 13. The leader up front is nose tackle Akeen Spence (FR All-American 2010) with Michael Buchanan (All-B1G 2011) on the end. The secondary, while not full of superstars, should be very good, led by Terry Hawthorne on the outside. Beckman was a defensive coach before head coach at Toledo, meaning even with DC Tim Banks on the staff, the head man himself should be involved in how the defense performs.
The offense should be very good with QB Nate Scheelhaase coming back after a very non-slumpy sophomore campaign in 2011. He was the Illini's leading rusher (903 yds gained, 6 TDs), while passing at 63% completion rate. Scheelhaase never lit up defenses one way or the other, rather he would torture them by always making the play any way possible. (Think Zack Mills before injuries) Illinois will need that kind of playmaking ability since Ford and Jenkins--the other two key threats from last year's offense--are gone. The offensive line returns three of five, but should remain in the middle of the pack this fall. With Scheelhaase's athletic ability, the line won't need to be great, just good enough.
Arizona State is looking for revenge after a close loss at Illinois last year. The game in Tempe could go a long way to telling us more about this Illinois team, just as it did last year. Hosting Penn State in the Big Ten opener will be the next major benchmark, but that's followed by back-to-back trips to Wisconsin and Michigan. The season wraps up with a rough one in Columbus, but closes out with Minnesota, Purdue and at Northwestern. A bowl bid is very possible, if not likely for Illinois in 2012.
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