With UC kicking off against Illinois less than 24 hours from now, I thought it would be great to talk to someone with a lot of knowledge about the Illini. I tried talking to that cheerleader, but she was busy. Instead, I'm talking to Robert from the great Illinois site A Lion Eye.
Questions in bold.
Illinois had a bit of a scare against Southern Illinois. Was last week an example of letting the foot off the gas after getting a pretty large lead, 42-24 with 12 minutes left, or was it a sign of struggles ahead?
Robert: It was definitely taking their foot off the gas. Illinois got the ball back with 7:08 on the clock and a 15 point lead… and put in the third string tailback and the third QB (Reilly O'Toole). O'Toole fumbled on the third play, SIU drove 31 yards for the touchdown, and suddenly it was an eight point game.
It was the main talking point after the game. Why take out the starters when the game isn't put away yet?
Nathan Sheelhaase had the game of his career last week. What kind of changes were made to his game and the Illinois offense during the offseason?
R: The offense was completely overhauled. In Tim Beckman's first year, he hired two top-notch recruiters (Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty) and made them co-offensive coordinators. Neither had ever been a coordinator before, and it showed. To the tune of the 119th best offense out of 120 FBS teams.
This year, Beckman went in a completely different direction. He hired Bill Cubit – recently fired as the head coach at Western Michigan – as his offensive coordinator. Cubit runs a quick-throwing "one thousand one one thousand throw" offense with a north-south running game. Scheelhaase has never been known as a passer, but this offense seems to fit him well. Still, it was just an FCS opponent. I don't think any Illini fan is counting on seeing that against an opponent like Cincinnati.
Illinois had 5 different players catch passes over 30 yards, 3 went for over 50 yards. They also had 10 players make a catch. Who are some of the guys who will get the most targets?
R: Senior Ryan Lankford has slowly emerged as Scheelhaase's favorite target over the last few years. But I think we will spread it around to at least 8 or 9 guys again. Cubit likes to rotate at least three tailbacks, five tight ends, and seven wide receivers. So there might be as many as 15 players targeted on Saturday. Look for Josh Ferguson out of the backfield, Jon Davis at Tight End, and Ryan Lankford at receiver to be the main targets.
The Illini gave up 5 sacks against Southern Illinois. Cincinnati only managed 1 against Purdue. Is the line Illinois' biggest issue and how will they try to stop the Bearcat rush?
R: Illinois was 111th nationally in sacks allowed last year, and giving up five more to an FCS team certainly wasn't encouraging. So it's a huge concern this season. One starting offensive lineman – possibly our best offensive lineman (Teddy Karras) – was injured in fall camp and missed the SIU game. So that left the coaches struggling to find a line combination with Karras out and right tackle Corey Lewis playing limited minutes. Karras will return for this game, so I think all Illini fans are hoping to see improved pass blocking.
With the great success of the passing game, Illinois didn't run much. The sacks destroyed their net rushing. Do you think they will commit more to the run game this week, or use it to keep UC honest?
R: And run blocking. If Karras is healthy and Lewis can go for more plays, I'm pretty comfortable with the starting offensive line. It's not going to be a top-of-the-Big-Ten line or anything, but it can be solid (and much better than last year). The stable of running backs was hurt by the dismissal of sophomore Dami Ayoola from the team this week (violation of team rules), but Ayoola was third string behind Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson. This run game hinges on an improved Young (thunder) and Ferguson (lightning). Ferguson was great last week with over 150 all purpose yards. Young was a disappointment. After a great spring and a great camp, he couldn't find an opening and finished with 6 yards on 8 carries. And that was against an FCS defense.
What can you tell us about the Illinois defense? The stats were not very kind to them.
R: They're young, but at least they're inexperienced. I don't think any stats are going to be kind to them this year. They returned half a starter on the defensive line and one part-time starter in the secondary. The line has some experience (three fourth-year juniors and a fifth-year senior), but the secondary is mostly all underclassmen (seven of the eight guys in the two-deep are first or second year players). So there are going to be mistakes and there are going to be yards. The hope is that they can create turnovers. There are three or four really good linebackers on this team, so the hope is that this will be a TFL and turnover defense. Yards? They're gonna give up some yards.
Is Tim Beckman the right fit at head coach?
R: That's still unknown. He took over a Toledo program shattered by a point shaving scandal and returned them to the top of the MAC. He worked under Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel and Mike Gundy, so he's seen how a program can be built. But after one year at Illinois, many fans have already given up. Last year's team wasn't even competitive.
The hope is that with Cubit's offense and a young defense, he can build something this year and then make a bowl next year. He did land Wes Lunt, who started at QB as a freshman last year at Oklahoma State before transferring out this spring. Lunt has to sit out this season, but the hope is that with only ten seniors on this current team, next year, with Lunt or freshman Aaron Bailey at the helm, the team takes a big step forward.
Finally, how do you think things play out Saturday?
R: I have this thing where I don't give a score prediction until a few hours before the game, so I can't give you a score prediction, but I will say this: Defensive Coordinator Tim Banks was brought here to do what he did at Cincinnati – be a disruptive defense that gets into the backfield and forces turnovers. At some point, in one of these games soon, that has to start to pay off. In some game in the near future, we're going to have one of those crazy turnover games where we win simply because we took the ball away four times.
If I was bold, I'd predict it to be this weekend. You guys are learning a new scheme, and you turned the ball over three times against Purdue, and this is your first road game. All of the ingredients are there for surprising game for us. Three interceptions and suddenly we're leading going into the fourth quarter.
But I'm never bold enough to go through with predictions like that. Cincy by 10.
Thanks a lot to Robert. Follow him on twitter @ALionEye. Be sure to visit the A Lion Eye blog, Iliniboard.com