What a time to be alive. Penn State football is bowl eligible and the Nittany Lions have a chance to move to 7-2 on the year this weekend. James Franklin and co. host a pesky Illinois team, one that has gotten past some off the field issues before the season and has turned into a solid team in the Big Ten West. The Illini are two wins away from bowl eligibility, and behind star signal caller Wes Lunt and a surprisingly stout defense, look like they can get to the postseason.
We wanted to learn a bit more about the Fightin'
Beckmans Cubits, so we reached out to the fine folks at the Illinois SB Nation site – which, for my money, has the best name of any SBN team site – The Champaign Room. Editor-in-chief Jim Vainisi was kind enough to answer our questions. To repay the favor, give him and TCR follows on the ol' Twitter machine.
Black Shoe Diaries: What was the reaction to Tim Beckman’s firing from Illinois fans?
The Champaign Room: Relief? Believe it or not, Tim Beckman actually did do some really good things during his time in Champaign, but his teams were just so damn. So damn bad. Did they show at least some improvement each year? Sure. But the Illini simply were not able to play competitive games against semi-quality opponents under his watch. The bowl game appearance in 2014 was an absolute gift in hindsight, and even then the Illini were completely dominated by an average Louisiana Tech team.
So, yea, a huge majority of fans are happy he’s gone despite the disturbing circumstances surrounding his departure.
BSD: How has the team been different under Bill Cubit? Any major differences between the way the team plays under Cubit compared to the way it played under Beckman?
TCR: Illinois was lucky to have someone like Cubit already on staff as he had previous head coaching experience/success at Western Michigan. Overall, I think you were going to see a better team regardless of who the coach was, but it just seems like a huge weight was taken off of everyone’s shoulders. Beckman’s job status was looming overhead for a few years and now the sole focus is on actual football.
BSD: Longterm, is Cubit the answer, or will the team go in a different direction after the season? Could a guy like P.J. Fleck be the coach next year?
TCR: I don’t think so. Illinois is a lot better this season, but they’re a Middle Tennessee field goal and a stunning mental gaffe by Mike Riley away from being 2-5. But the problem is, the Illini may not have a choice other than to bring Cubit back. Illinois’ administration is in complete shambles right now after former Chancellor Phyllis Wise resigned, and AD Mike Thomas doesn’t have much job security. That doesn’t seem like an appealing situation for a prospective coach, right? So it wouldn’t be out of the question for Cubit to get a two-three year deal while the BOT figures everything out.
Related: It doesn’t help that USC, Miami (FL), South Carolina, Minnesota, and Maryland will also be looking for coaches
But if Illinois were to hire a new head coach, I think someone like P.J. Fleck would be a nice fit. He probably isn’t equipped to be Power 5 coach just yet, but the upper tier coaching prospects (i.e. Justin Fuente) are almost certainly out of Illinois’ reach so they’d have to hire based on potential.
BSD: What did last year’s game against Penn State mean to the fanbase?
TCR: I think it meant quite a bit. Conference wins had unfortunately become a rarity under Tim Beckman, so it was just awesome to see David Reisner’s 50-yard kick go through the uprights. It obviously also kept bowl hopes alive, and that was sort of a big deal at the time.
BSD: The strength of this team has been its defense. Was that something people expected, or was the expectation that the offense was going to carry the load?
TCR: Fans were definitely expecting the offense to carry this team, but that obviously hasn’t happened thanks to a plethora of injuries to key players. The defense, on the other hand, has been a huge surprise. Last year, this was a unit that couldn’t stop anyone. Fast forward a few months and this is the No. 10 defense in the country according to the latest S&P+ numbers.
BSD: What is the Illini’s approach on defense? In the past it has seemed like that side of the ball has been behind the offense, how has that changed?
TCR: I think there’s still a slight ‘bend, don’t break’ mentality, but a vastly improved defensive line has allowed the entire unit to take more chances. Led by Jihad Ward (run-stuffing DE) and Dawuane Smoot (pass rushing LEO), the line features at least 3 guys who could make a NFL roster in the future.
Forcing turnovers has been another huge emphasis. The Illini have been atrocious in that area for the past decade; over that time frame, they were dead last at the FBS level in interceptions. But it’s been a completely different story this year. Combined, the unit has already logged 9 interceptions (!!), including 3 each from safety Taylor Barton and cornerback Eaton Spence.
BSD: Mike Dudek was the team’s best player last year, but he’s been out all season. How have the Illini been able to compensate for his loss? On that note, has the offense met Dudek-less expectations?
TCR: To put it frankly, the Illini haven’t been able to make up for his loss. Geronimo Allison has been the best receiver in the Big Ten this year, but Illinois’ success through the air pretty much starts and ends with him. The other members of the receiving corps have been terrible. You name it -- dropped passes, run blocking, running wrong routes, false starts -- they’re struggling with it. Elsewhere, Illinois’ offensive line has been great in pass protection. Unfortunately they haven’t been able to create running lanes for Josh Ferguson and Ke’Shawn Vaughn, and that’s caused the Illini to become a one-dimensional team despite Cubit’s annoying insistence on a balanced, multiple attack.
TL;DR - Illinois’ offense is abysmal for 95% of the game, but it comes to life if/when we’re trailing in the fourth quarter (Cubit starts passing the ball every play).
BSD: How big of a loss is (probably) not having Josh Ferguson on Saturday? Is Ke’Shawn Vaughn capable of carrying the load at running back?
TCR: Ferguson is still somehow one of the most underrated backs in the country; his absence will hurt both the running game and passing game because he’s so versatile out of the backfield. Luckily, freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn is already shaping up to be the next great Illinois running back. He’s a tough, powerful runner that also has some speed/elusiveness in his arsenal. Another very underrated aspect of his game is pass protection; this is something that first-year backs typically struggle with, but Vaughn has fit right in with the team’s blocking schemes.
Like Ferguson, though, Vaughn has become a victim of non-existent running lanes lately. So while he’s going to play just about 100% of the snaps on Saturday, don’t expect too much out of him.
BSD: In terms of pure arm talent, Wes Lunt may be the second or third best quarterback in the conference. What are his strengths/shortcomings as a QB, and how good is this team when he’s on his game?
TCR: Wes Lunt is so good. He’s got an NFL arm, he can make just about every throw in the book, and he’s very accurate when on the same page with his receivers. You probably won’t see Lunt throw the ball downfield much (playcalling), but he can pick a defense apart with short-intermediate passes all day long. Lunt’s biggest weakness is his lack of mobility. He’s got good pocket awareness, but you’re not going to see him make many defenders miss and he’s absolutely not going to make a play with his legs.
When Lunt is at his best, opposing defenses really can’t do anything to stop Illinois’ offense. The key to stopping him is to take away his time in the pocket, because he’ll pretty much just fall to the ground at the first sight of danger.
BSD: The Illini’s specialists haven’t been too great this year. How confident are you in the kicking game? And is it safe to assume that, no matter what, you’re more confident in V’Angelo Bentley’s ability in the return game?
TCR: Illinois’ specialists are better than last year. I’m by no means confident in Taylor Zalewski’s ability to kick field goals, but he’s got a surprisingly strong leg and is usually good for a few points each game. On the other side, Ryan Frain’s punting is still a work in progress, but he hasn’t lost a game on the last play so we’ve got that going for us. Finally, the kickoff coverage unit has actually been great this year; we’re frequently stopping returners before the 20-yard line.
Bentley set Illinois’ punt return yardage record a few weeks ago, but he hasn’t had many opportunities to make plays this year. Penn State would be wise to kick away from him because he’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball.
BSD: How do you see this one shaking out?
TCR: Illinois is a good football team! I see this being a very close contest since Illinois’ defensive strengths match up perfectly with Penn State’s offensive weaknesses. But at the same time this is a conference road game, and I have 0% confidence in the Illini away from Champaign.
Penn State 20, Illinois 10
Be sure to check out The Champaign Room for an Illinois perspective on this weekend's game.