The Illini come to town on Saturday, and they're reeling as much as Penn State. The two teams combined to lose 105-17 a week ago, but at least our blowout came at the hands of the putative Big Ten champions. The loss continued the downward slide for the Illini, who went from a team with a solid out-of-conference performance--beating Cincy, hanging with Washington--back to the dregs of the Big Ten where they belong. As always, we reached out to the foremost authority on Illinois football, blogger Brandon Birkhead of The Champaign Room, to give us some insight about this year's squad.
Black Shoe Diaries: Through nonconference play, Illinois looked like a surprise contender in the Big Ten. Now, you're 0-3 in the Big Ten, each loss progressively worse. What's gone wrong?
The Champaign Room: We started playing much tougher competition. Southern Illinois is a team we should never lose to, and Miami of Ohio may be the worst division one school right now. They are next to last in the BCS standings. The win over Cincinnati looked good, but now we are finding out that Cincy is nowhere near as good as we thought they were. Simply put, playing Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State is a hell of a lot tougher.
BSD: After a miserable 2012, Nathan Scheelhaase has put together a great season. What's been the key to his turnaround?
TCR: He is finally healthy and is finally getting help from the players around him. Bill Cubit has turned the offense around, and is starting to use players in effective ways. The use of multiple formations keeps defenses guessing and Illinois runs plays designed to keep Scheelhaase from getting hit. He always was talented enough to be a solid Big Ten QB, and now since he has support around him, he is finally become one.
BSD: On the flip side, Illinois' defense has been abysmal, ranking 10th in the Big Ten in scoring and 11th in total defense. Where are the weakest points that Bill O'Brien will look to take advantage of?
TCR: In all honesty, everything but the linebackers. The Illini defense is very talent deprived. The secondary is very young and inexperienced and gives up many big plays. But if I had to point to one unit that is the weakest, it would be the defensive line. They are very small, and struggle to get any pressure on the QB. Big Ten teams are able to do pretty much whatever they want because they are able to control the line of scrimmage with ease.
BSD: In order for Illinois to pull the upset, who has to step up?
To pull off the upset, the Illini will need to outscore Penn State and make this a shootout. The loss of our biggest play threat at receiver, Ryan Lankford, will hurt, so we will need our other WRs, Marize Barr, Steve Hull, and Spencer Harris to deliver the big plays Illinois will need.
BSD: Do Illinois fans realize how much Penn State fans hate Tim Beckman? Because we really, really do. What's Ryan Nowicki up to these days? Speaking of Beckman: Is he really on the hot seat this quickly, a year and a half after taking over for Ron Zook? What's the real ceiling for how good Illinois football can even be?
TCR: I get how angry people are, but I can't really blame Beckman for trying to get quality players when he had the chance. The team he inherited lacked Big Ten talent across the board, so when you have a chance to get some quality player, you have to take it, but we all wish he would have handled it in a better manner. Ryan Nowicki transferred to Northern Arizona without ever playing for Illinois. We got all the bad press to get a player who never played a down for us. That's so Illini. Many fans are calling for Beckman to be fired out of frustration, but I don't see a way that Mike Thomas makes that decision. The team is not good this year, but they have made major improvements and while his recruiting isn't good, it's not been too bad. The really issue is, if you fire Beckman, who would you bring in? Who would want this job that it would be worth firing a coach after only two years? Not long ago, I wrote a series just on this point. I see no reason Illinois can't become a solid program in the Big Ten that is winning 7-8 games every year, and can compete every now and then. We are a school with great history, plenty of resources, and a great location just south of Chicago. We just need to have the right people get the program on track. Ron Zook was very close to getting the team to that level, but it fell apart at the end. It can happen.
BSD: How do you see this one shaping up? After last week, Penn State should be very motivated to win this game.
TCR: Illinois will have a tough time going into Happy Valley, which is always one of the toughest road environments. Illinois should perform much better than they did last weekend, but I still can't see them pulling this one off. Penn State 27 Illinois 20.
Thanks again, Brandon, and remember to visit The Champaign Room to get my answers to Brandon's questions and for all things Illini all season long.