The Illini are 3-1, but what do the folks that cover them really think about that start? For that, we got a hold of Aaron Rench, assistant editor of the SBNation community The Champaign Room.
He gave us some great answers, and we appreciate him. We fired off a Q&A for them as well (which is right here), so check out their site for that. Give Aaron a follow too to find out his thoughts during the game.
1. Well, a return trip to Lincoln for Nebraska’s Homecoming is up on the block. 3-1 is the Illini record, but the loss is against the only Power 5 school you’ve faced so far. What’s gone on with the Illini season so far?
It doesn't seem to matter who they play, but the Illini start every game nearly the same -- a lackluster offense that generally can't get one first down, and a defense that flip-flops between good and questionable every other play. At Washington, they fell behind faster than I thought was possible. In the other three games (Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State) the Illini become a different team after the half. The offense starts to click and the defense remembers how to tackle, but ultimately, there'll be one horrible play that resets all the work they've done. And then, the fireworks start. The fourth quarter is when Wes Lunt shines with a orange-ish glare; he throws bombs, bursting through the air. It gives proof into the night that our hopes are still there. My patriotic metaphor is only barely exaggerating -- Lunt seems to take all game to get into the swing of things, but when he does, he can get us out of some scary-bad situations.
2. A lot of folks (myself included) were pretty surprised that Tim Beckman returned to Champaign. 6-18 in 2 seasons before this year, but with a decent start, what’s the leash length on Beckman for this season?
Here's the deal with Beckman: he started during a time when Illinois' recruiting gas tank was running on fumes. He then went on to make a few less-than-optimal decisions both on and off the field during the first several months. The resulting caricature was a combination of Charlie Brown, SpongeBob and Fozzie Bear -- an innocent stupidity that just couldn't get it right. But true Illini fans who have watched Beckman since, realize that he's more than that. He's building something that could have solidarity for years to come, but it's hard to point to that when hasn't yet arrived. Now, we're all waiting for this B1G conference schedule to start. If the Illini are competitive with five wins, he stays; the same goes if he makes it to a bowl game.
3. Bill Cubit loves to sling it across the yard, and Wes Lunt has 1237 yards and 11 TD’s so far. Is Lunt the man that Illinois was hoping he’d be? What are the big differences we’ll see between Lunt and Nathan Scheelhaase?
There are different levels of the hope with Lunt. There's the Good, Competent Quarterback Hope, one that isn't a disaster and one that doesn't lose you games -- Lunt has achieved this.
There's also Top Three Best Quarterback in the B1G Hope, or, being able to keep up with the Christian Hackenburg's and the
Connor Cook's Tommy Armstrong's of the B1G -- some might argue this already but I'll concede that he's not quite there. He's got an arm that can easily reach receivers 40+ yards downfield, but he's had some issues with short-distance accuracy and decisions while under duress. He also has roots -- he can't seem to leave the pocket, quite the opposite from Scheelhaase's all-around-ness.
And then there's the Prodigal Son/Real-Life Skywalker Who Will Bring Balance to the B1G!! Hope -- this isn't going to happen this year, but the future is extremely bright.
4. Josh Ferguson was pretty quiet for the most part until Texas State, when he went for 190 yards. Outside of that one game though, Ferguson and Donovonn Young have been pretty silent when it comes to the rushing game. What’s the issue there?
Ferguson and Young weren't tremendously awful in those first three games, it's just that OC Cubit is a pass-happy wizard and our O-line has had some early season troubles. Cubit will pass first, which results in lesser total carries for our backs. Ferguson is fast and elusive while Young is the hammer to your cornerback's nail, but it doesn't really matter if they don't get many chances, or any space.
When they do get handed the ball, the line tends to only create tiny little holes to run through. This has been confusing for most fans because four of the five Week 1 starters were there last year. They just can't seem to get off the ball fast enough, or identify any kind of tricky stunts or blitzes. They seem to do slightly better with pass blocking, but that's still something that hasn't been meeting preseason expectations.
5. With the passing success of Lunt, we see a few receivers with some big numbers. Talk about this group and what they all do well together.
There was considerable worry about our receiver core during the spring. Four of our top five leaders in receiving yards had left, the only one remaining was a running back (Ferguson). Beckman brought in Juco's and two 3-star freshmen and they've done quite well for themselves.
Freshmen Mike Dudek is a gem. He comes with an obligatory Wes Welker comparison and the flash of a firework -- he's got waaay more talent than a 3-star ranking, he's just kinda small. The other freshmen, Malik Turner, is big and catches anything that comes near him. Many people in Champaign are excited to see what he does in the future. Juco transfer Geronimo Allison has the most yards so far this season even though he sat out last week's game with a knee injury.
6. Illinois has given up a lot of yards and points across the board. What should we know about Tim Banks’ group and how do they match up against the Nebraska Offense in your view?
They've improved. In 2013, the defense allowed an atrocious 5.6 yards per rush, the worst in the B1G, but it's become a much more respectable number, only 3.5 per. Yeah, it's early, and, no, we haven't face any good running backs like Abdullah or Melvin Gordon, but I wasn't expecting them to completely turn it around in one year. The vast majority of the Illini defense returned from last year meaning that we're all hoping they improve with experience alone. For any position that didn't look to improve, Beckman brought in Juco's, like defensive end Jihad Ward, a potential monster who can still get bigger and needs to better his technique. Junior linebacker Mason Monheim -- the first recruit to commit to Beckman -- is proof that Beckman can build a good team, given enough time. Monheim is the best pure tackler on the defense and makes play all over the field. The other player to know is Earnest Thomas III, a hybrid linebacker/safety who loves to hit, and may be the Illini with the best chances of being drafted.
Matched up against Nebraska, I'm not quite sure what will happen. We haven't played any one with your level of offensive potency. All I really know is that it'll be a test for our defense.
7. Beckman has seemed to struggle with recruiting, even being near Chicago and having the opportunity to hit up Ohio as well. What’s been the issue with recruiting to the Illini?
1st Year: Came in late to recruiting cycle, had to follow through with some of Ron Zook's recruits who haven't remained with the team.
2nd Year: Rebuilding depth of a depleted roster. Best recruit was scrambling quarterback Aaron Bailey, who would lose the QB battle with Lunt this summer. (Nebraska wanted Bailey hard, but lost him in the end. -BT)
3rd Year: Still building depth (it was that bad) including getting several Juco's for the D-line and the receiver core, which consequently lowered the class rankings.
You might say I'm being forgiving or too optimistic, but I honestly do believe this is how a coach would start to rebuild a team. No, we're not going to rocket back to consistent Top 25 rankings, but this will get us to 8 wins next year. It does remain a concern that Beckman hasn't found much luck with Chicagoland recruits. It's could be our greatest resource but somehow it's eluded many of our coaches. Could you imagine what Nebraska could do with that kind of access?
8. We talked about Beckman’s status above, but what is the true ceiling of this team? Detroit or Heart of Dallas Bowl?
If you truly want the ceiling, the Illini can reach just above the Heart of Dallas bowl, but the chances of that are similar to a coin-flip landing on its side. A more likely ceiling: 7-5 with B1G wins over Purdue (obvious), Minnesota (we're expecting this as a win but can't be too sure), Penn State or Iowa (counted as a surprise upset), and at Northwestern (the win we want the most). If the Illini play like they do in first halves (halfs?), they definitely won't make a bowl, but what they've done in the second half, especially the fourth quarter, would get them well into the 7-5 range.
9. Talk about anyone else that you haven’t discussed above that we should keep an eye on Saturday.
Kickers. Our incumbent starter, Taylor Zalewski has struggled mightily. He's booted two kickoffs out of bounds, missed an extra point, and hit only one of three field goal attempts. Last week, he was replace mid-game by sophomore David Reisner, who proceeded to do everything asked of him.
10. Finally, who do you see winning this game, and how do you see the matchup materialize?
Nebraska will win. That's not really in question, but there is a small chance that does Illinois win, but it comes with a bonkers amount of luck and Lunt being his fourth-quarter self from the start. I actually wouldn't be too surprised if this turned into a shootout, but if the Husker defense can stop us early, the game will be over before halftime.
What I'm really hoping for is that Illinois just keeps it close. I want to see (through my fingers) how the defense holds up to Abdullah. Will we slow him down at all? Can we contain Armstrong at the same time?
I wish the Huskers decent luck.