Illinois football coach Tim Beckman was extremely successful in one area in his first season in Champaign last year.
The Fighting Illini finished 2-10 overall and 0-8 in the Big 10 Conference, but excelled in the classroom in his first season. Illinois had a record number of student-athletes post a GPA of 3.0 or higher in three straight semesters (39). Beckman, a former head coach at Toledo who pushes off-the-field success as much as on-the-field efforts, claims discipline struggles to survive on its own.
“What our players have shown us has been huge,” he said. “From classroom to discipline to being involved in this community, it’s leaps and bounds from what it was before. So now it’s time to translate that on the football field.
“There’s always correlations between that, in my opinion. I’ve always seen it in the teams that I’ve been around, that if you’re doing things right off the field, then on the field, it should pay off.”
Illini fans are waiting for that payoff this season.
Illinois enters Saturday’s season opener against SIU mired in a nine-game losing streak. The Fighting Illini return eight starters on offense, but have a new offensive coordinator in Bill Cubit. Cubit’s offense at Western Michigan set school records for points (459), touchdowns (58), pass attempts (554), total yards (5,960) and offensive plays (945) in 2011. With Illinois having both starting wide receivers and both running backs back and four-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback, the Salukis are preparing for everything from an Eastern Illinois flashback to a Northern Iowa style rushing attack.
“They have two talented running backs,” said SIU coach Dale Lennon. “I think their run game will be improved over last year. They’ve got three tight ends in their program that could all be starters, too. What we have to be ready for is anywhere from a spread offense to a 22-personnel, which is two tight ends and two backs in the backfield, so, it definitely will be challenging to our defensive side.”
Defensively, the Illini allowed an average of 32.1 points per game last season. Three of their best players went to the NFL, including defensive linemen Akeem Spence (fourth round, Tampa Bay) and Michael Buchanan (seventh round, New England). Cornerback Terry Hawthorne, the team’s seventh-leading tackler last year with 44, was drafted by Pittsburgh in the fifth round.
Illinois will be young on the defensive side, with only two seniors listed on its two-deep this weekend. Tim Kynard, a 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive end, had 18 tackles in 11 games last year. Senior linebacker Jonathan Brown, a semifinalist for the Butkus Award in 2012 even though he missed the last three games with a shoulder injury. He has on the watch list for the Butkus (best linebacker), Bednarik and Nagurski Awards (best defensive player) this year.
Sophomore Mason Monheim, the middle linebacker, became the first true freshman to ever lead the Illini in tackles last year when he made 86.
SIU is 0-3 against Illinois. The two teams last played three years ago, when the Salukis lost 35-3 despite reaching the red zone four times. Scheelhaase, then a redshirt freshman, threw for 229 yards and two scores in that victory. SIU lost 28-25 in 1985 and 56-21 in 1990.
The Salukis, who became the first Missouri Valley Football Conference or Gateway Conference team to ever beat a Big 10 squad when they rallied to top Indiana in 2006, will be going for some history. Illinois is 12-0 all-time against Football Championship Subdivision teams. FCS teams have 22 less scholarships than Football Bowl Subdivision schools like the Illini. Illinois is 13-0 all-time against public universities within the state.
However, the MVFC has been home to some big upsets in the FBS-FCS rivalry.
North Dakota State became the first Valley Football program to ever beat an FBS opponent in three straight seasons when it beat Colorado State, 22-7, last year. The Bison beat Minnesota in 2011 for the league’s second win over a Big 10 squad and beat Kansas, 6-3, in 2010. Last year, the MVFC had three of the 10 wins by FCS schools over FBS counterparts: Youngstown State beat Pittsburgh, 31-17, NDSU beat Colorado State and Illinois State beat Eastern Michigan, 31-14.
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