BLOOMINGTON, IN - OCTOBER 08: Nathan Scheelhaase #2 of the Illinois Illini runs with the ball while defended by Darius Johnson #44 of the Indiana Hoosiers during the game at Memorial Stadium on October 8, 2011 in Bloomington, Indiana. Illinois won 41-20. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Regardless, to make any progress in Big Ten record, IU probably will have to win on the road this season. The Illinois game seems like as good a prospect as any. As mentioned above, Illinois fired Ron Zook, and replaced him with Tim Beckman, who had a good but not overwhelming record in three seasons as head coach at Toledo. He does have a solid pedigree as an assistant, with stops at Oklahoma State, Ohio State, and Auburn, although only two years as a major conference coordinator. Illinois fired both Zook and basketball coach Bruce Weber last school year, and it's fair to say that Illinois didn't hit a home run with either hire. That's not to say that Beckman won't do a great job, or that John Groce won't do a fine job with the basketball program. But neither Weber nor Zook was an abject failure. Zook was 30-32 in his final five seasons. Weber won nearly 70 percent of his games with the Illini. When replacing decent-but-not-good-enough coaches, one generally expects a statement hire. If these two hires have made any statement, it's that the coaching market may not be buying the "sleeping giant" argument anymore. On paper, considering state population and intrastate competition, Illinois should be a power in both sports, but insists upon being Illinois.
Still, I shouldn't yap too much, because the cupboard is far from bare. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is among the Big Ten most experienced quarterback. He's a junior who has started essentially since day one. In 2011, he increased his completion percentage from 58 to 63 and threw 13 TDs to 8 interceptions. He's also a dual threat, running for 868 yards as a freshman and 624 yards last season. While top running backs Jason Ford and Troy Pollard are gone, Donnovon Young, who had a solid freshman season (451 yards, 5.2 per carry, 6 TDs) is back, as is sophomore Josh Ferguson, who missed most of his first season with a hamstring injury. At receiver, Illinois relied heavily on AJ Jenkins last season. He is gone, and Illinois does return Spencer Harris, who was Illinois's #2 receiver with only 226 yards. Defensive back Terry Hawthorne will be moving over to offense. Tight end Evan Wilson caught only 9 passes, but three of them were for touchdowns. The Illini will be breaking in a new kicker, but return punter Justin DuVernois. The Illini return three of five starters on the O-line.
On defense, linebacker Jonathan Brown, who led Illinois in tackles and had 6 sacks, returns, as does Michael Buchanan, who led the way with 7.5 sacks. DL Akeem Spence, who had 1.5 sacks, returns as well. Thankfully, the most appropriately named player in Big Ten history, Whitney Mercilous, has taken his 16 sacks to the NFL (although Andrew Luck and Colts fans will be seeing him a couple of times per season with the Texans).
I really have no idea what to expect from Illinois, although the Illini will be much less of a mystery when this game rolls around on October 27. They have talent, as they always did under Ron Zook, but certainly must replace some key pieces on both sides of the ball. Can they find some solid receivers for Scheelhaase? Do they have enough returning to come close to their 2011 defensive performance, when they ranked seventh nationally? Coaching changes are always exciting in August. We can only hope that Illini fans in2012 feel about the same way IU fans felt in October 2011.