So I'm going to go the easy route and do a Q&A. Since I did this thing last year, the SB Nation blog for Illinois (Hail to the Orange) is no longer functioning. However, after some snooping around, I found A Lion Eye. Get it? Anyways, he answered some questions for me, and I answered some questions for him. Here's what he had to say.
1. Gone is Ron Zook. Enter Tim Beckman. We are 1-2 against him, with a blowout apiece and the 66-63 marathon match last season. Advantage or disadvantage for you?
I think it's a big advantage for us that our opening opponent is a MAC opponent. Coach Beckman has game-planned against Coach Cubit three years in a row, and has set up our scout team accordingly (with our fourth QB Chase Haslett - son of Jim - playing the role of Alex Carder).
For Cubit, honestly, there's nothing to gameplan. Beckman didn't bring any schemes with him from Toledo to Champaign, so for film, Cubit would have to study Cincinnati's defense and, well, maybe Vandy and LSU's offense. We Illini fans have a pretty good idea what this defense will look like - new coordinator (from Cincy) Tim Banks runs a similar scheme to departed coordinator Vic Koenning. We'll have a hybrid DE/Linebacker, a hybrid Linebacker/Safety, and run a 4-2-5 that's really a 3-3-5.
But on offense, not one single Illini fan or reporter knows what to expect, so Cubit will have nothing to go on. And they really kept it simple in the spring game (in order to provide zero film). No August scrimmages, either. We know we're going back to the spread, but what that will look like, nobody knows. Our co-offensive coordinators came from Vandy (Chris Beatty) and LSU (Billy Gonzales), but they say they're most influenced by their stays at West Virginia (Beatty) and Florida (Gonzales).
So I say advantage Beckman here. He knows what to expect. Cubit has nothing to go on.
For more check out below the jump.
2. Nate Steals-Houses had a good game last season if I remember, along with your running game in general. As a dual-threat QB in Beckman's spread system, how good do you expect him to be not just in this game, but the entire season?
He was Jeckyll and Hyde last year. After our first six games, he was #5 nationally in passing efficiency and seemed to be on pace for about 900 rushing yards. After our subsequent six game losing streak, he fell to #53 in passing efficiency. Just think about how poorly you have to play to drop to 53rd after being #5 at the halfway point.
So he had a surprisingly solid freshman season and then a sophomore slump. How will he do as a junior? Well, the offense probably fits him much better. His first two seasons were under coordinator Paul Petrino, who ran a hybrid pro-set/pistol. Nate was under center a lot and in the pistol a lot. If this is a true spread, I'd assume he'll be in the shotgun a lot, which A) he hasn't done much of, and B) he's probably best suited for.
But he also lost his top target in AJ Jenkins, who was selected in the first round by the 49ers. Jenkins had 90 catches on the year. Our next three receivers - our top three receivers this year - had 26, 19, and 12 catches. The hope is that Darius Millines - who had 5 catches for 119 yards in the opener last year before getting injured and missing 7 games - can be that #1 guy. He almost has to be if Nathan is going to improve his passer rating.
Where I'm most hopeful is the run game. Scheelhaase ran a spread in high school, and he was recruited here to run the Mike Locksley spread (to be our next Juice Williams, basically), but then Locksley took the New Mexico job. Nathan spent a redshirt year under the Mike Schultz spread, but then when it was his turn to take over, we switched to the Petrino offense (lots of under-center with twin tight ends and fullbacks). This year will be the first time our spread quarterback gets to run a spread offense. But that's a good thing and a bad thing - we're running a brand new scheme for the first time, which can sometimes look disastrous for several games.
3. Alex Carder could have won us the game last year but took a sack instead of throwing the ball away, draining the clock to the point of no come-back. He had a long offseason after his Pizza Bowl performance (4 INTs, 2 fumbles). Are you scared of Angry Alex Carder?
I'm scared of Carder, but I'm more scared of a Western Michigan fan that is scared of Carder. "Long offseason"? Blaming him for the Illini loss last year? You realize Carder's season last year was better than any Illini quarterback since 2001, right? That I, possibly the world's biggest Scheelhaase fan, would trade you Nate for Alex straight up?
I'm terrified of him. I've watched MAC quarterbacks in Memorial Stadium for 20+ years, and he's probably the best one (Nate Davis at Ball State comes to mind, but Carder is more impressive to me). Maybe I'm missing something - maybe he won't be as effective without Jordan White - but I'm having a hard time processing a "long offseason" meaning anything more than "just one more year with Carder and then we might not see a QB like him for 20 more years."
Sorry to kind of not answer your question, but I'm having a hard time processing it. It sounds like you're not happy with Alex Carder, and I can't see how that's possible. Notre Dame would drop all of their QB's and start him in every game this year, no questions asked.
EDITORS NOTE: I'm not the biggest Alex Carder fan, mostly because I love clutch performers, and frankly Carder has dropped the ball a few times. However, I do believe he's a very talented QB.
4. As I stated before, you guys demolished us on the ground. On a scale of 1 to NIU (500 yards rushing given up last season), how good do you expect to be against us this game?
184. And that's probably wishcasting. This is a brand new offense and brand new blocking scheme. And it's being implemented with an offensive roster that averaged 11 points per game over our final seven games last season. Look at it that way, and we'll be lucky to gain 100 yards on Saturday.
Remember when Michigan switched to the spread in 2008? Their first game against Utah? 36 rushing yards. It took them a long time to figure out the new blocking schemes and the new offensive tempo.
You might see something similar from us on Saturday. Brand new scheme, brand new tempo, and this is our first product roll-out. I'm frightened it's going to be Yakkity Sax for the first six games.
5. I, along with some friends, might be coming to this game. What are some good local watering holes/places to eat around there?
Man, my list is going to be so 1994. But here goes.
On campus, go to Murphy's and get a burger and a beer. They've expanded since I was on campus, so it doesn't really have that small bar/burger joint vibe anymore, but the food is still good. If you want a great little Italian joint off campus, go to Manzella's on North 1st Street.
If you want deep dish pizza the way God intended (and don't mind waiting 90 minutes), go to Papa Dels. And if you long for the college bar experience with the faint hint of vomit in the air (you know, in a good way), then go to Kam's.
6. Tell me how the Illinois defense looks so far.
Talent: Solid A if not an A+. Four or five guys who will play in the NFL (and we've had five defenders drafted the last two years, with two first-rounders). Experienced, too, with seven senior starters and two juniors who might declare early. All this from a unit that was #7 nationally last year.
Depth: C-. Those starters mentioned above are as experienced as they come because our staff was frightened to play the backups the last few years. An injury here or there and we have to put in an extremely green replacement.
Scheme: INC. We didn't really change the scheme much as I mentioned above. But all of the coaches are new. Will Tim Banks be as brilliant as Vic Koenning was in calling plays? No idea.
7. Look into your crystal ball, and tell me the next lottery numbers.......errr, I mean, how the game is going to go and end.
I have this weird thing where I won't make a prediction on any game until the night before. I want every last piece of information before I make the call. For example, there's now a decent chance Hurricane Issac will be a tropical depression centered over Springfield, Illinois on Saturday at 11:00 am. That changes everything. If Carder can't pass because we're in a constant, hurricane-fueled downpour, that changes everything that I thought I knew about this game.
So I'll just say this. Right now, I'm leaning towards a Western Michigan win. There's a good chance we come out and look Michigan-against-Utah confused in our new schemes. It takes time to install a brand new offense, and when you're doing this with as many offensive line questions as we have, well, I could easily see 10 Illini punts averaging 23 yards in the wind and rain.
Oh, the lottery numbers. Go with 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42.