Illinois enters Saturday's tilt needing to sweep their final two games to reach a bowl game and, perhaps, to save Tim Beckman's career. That means that a win Saturday could deprive Penn State, and the Big Ten, from Beckman's underappreciated comic genius. Are we sure this is what we really want?
Anyway, I went to the folks at the spectacularly-monikered Champaign Room for some As to my Qs, and Matt Silich has given us the scoop. Thanks, Matt.
Black Shoe Diaries: Tim Beckman has been listed as sitting on one of the hottest seats in the country. At this point, do you feel like the Illini should move on from Beckman?
The Champaign Room: I think most of Illini nation would agree that it's time to move on from Tim Beckman. The clear expectation set forth by AD Mike Thomas this year was an improvement over last year's team. While it's possible Illinois ends with one or even two more wins than last year, it seems clear at this point that the team has not made much of a jump from 2013. Beckman will almost certainly stay if the Illini win their last two games and make a bowl, but most fans (including myself) don't trust him to take the program to the desired consistent bowl-making level.
BSD: Penn State fans still haven't forgiven Beckman for trying to poach a handful of Nittany Lions after the NCAA's sanctions came down. How do fans feel about that particular chapter in Illini history?
TCR: I don't think anybody is necessarily proud of what Beckman did, but I don't think Illinois fans really think about it much anymore. For me, it was just something where I said, "Well that seems kinda dumb," and moved on, but I understand why Penn State fans still dislike him for it.
BSD: Illinois ranks dead last in the Big Ten in both scoring and total defense. Why has that unit been so bad, and where can a struggling Penn State offense look to exploit it?
TCR: The run defense has been the major problem this year for the Illini. The pass defense isn't much better truthfully, but it hasn't been exposed quite as badly because of the dearth of passing talent in the B1G. The struggles have come at all three levels of the defense-- the line has had trouble generating pressure and getting push on standard downs, the linebackers have had issues filling gaps and getting off blocks, and the secondary takes poor angles to the ball and struggles to wrap up ball carriers. Hopefully, Penn State's offensive line will struggle in this game. Illinois' defense has actually been very good for small stretches when the DL has been able to get into the backfield with consistency.
BSD: In transfer Wes Lunt, it seemed like Illinois had landed the best QB to play for the Illini in recent memory. His stats look pretty, but what's the scouting report on Lunt?
TCR: Wes Lunt is quite obviously a very talented quarterback, but has been inconsistent in his first year in Champaign. He just came back from a leg injury (hairline fracture) last week against Iowa and was pretty clearly uncomfortable when under pressure. He threw the ball more erratically than earlier in the season, missing a handful of open receivers throughout the game. On the other hand, Lunt had a few passes that reminded you of just how ridiculous his arm can be when everything lines up perfectly. When Lunt is on, the Illini offense can rapidly move the ball down the field with help from RB Josh Ferguson, and WRs Mike Dudek and Geronimo Allison. When Lunt struggles, which most often happens when facing a great defensive line, the offense as a whole stalls and begins a parade of three-and-outs.
BSD: What went right in the upset win over Minnesota, and how could Illinois replicate that result on Saturday?
TCR: The biggest factors in the win over Minnesota were finishing drives, one half of elite defense, and luck. Minnesota is the only Big ten game this year where Illinois was able to contain an opponent's running game for more than a couple of drives-- the defensive line absolutely dominated Minnesota's OL and David Cobb was helpless. Illinois used that defensive success and their ability to finish drives in the red zone (a huge struggle this season) to open up a 14-3 lead at the half. The defense was just barely able to hold on in the second half, creating a ridiculous fumble-six that gave the win to the Illini. Wes Lunt did not play in that game, so the offense should be improved if OC Bill Cubit plays to his QB's strengths. On defense, Illinois may be able to replicate the success of the Minnesota game by getting pressure on Christian Hackenberg. PSU's line struggles are well-documented, and Illinois actually has some athletic pass rushers on the line that could cause problems in third-and-long scenarios. Winning the battle of the trenches on defense is probably the most important objective Illinois has in this game.
BSD: How do you see this one shaping up?
TCR: At this point, it's hard to have much hope for a win on Saturday. I wouldn't be surprised if Illinois keeps it close with a surprisingly decent performance from the defense, but I don't expect the offense to score more than 24 points against Penn State's excellent defense. The PSU-Indiana game is encouraging, because the Hoosiers' defense is probably pretty similar to that of Illinois, but I don't have enough faith in Tim Beckman's game-planning to predict a victory. I think Penn State covers the spread and wins in Champaign, something along the lines of 27-17.
Thanks again, Matt, and remember to read The Champaign Room this week and all season long to stay up to date on Illinois football. Or just later today, to read my answers to their questions.