The Miami RedHawks are on the road again once more this week to close out one of the toughest non-conference season's a Mid-American Conference team has had this year. The RedHawks (0-3) are taking their miserable offensive show on the road to Champaign, Ill., Saturday for a noon kickoff against the Fighting Illini of Illinois (2-1). To get you acquainted with the Illinois Football team we reached out to The Champaign Room, SB Nation's fantastic Illini blog. Brandon Birkhead was kind enough to answer some questions for us.
Hustle Belt: While MAC fan's might not be that familiar with Illinois Football, they are familiar with the team's head coach Tim Beckman, who coached Toledo from 2009-2011. Last year was a rough first year for Beckman in Champaign, but this year already looks much better. How do Illini fan's feel about the new coach?
Champaign Room: After his first year on campus, many saw him as a joke. He had two embarrassing sideline interference calls, and with the play of the team, and his overall press conference demeanor, he seemed like he had no clue. There was a substantial portion of the fan base that wanted him to be fired after last season. But now we are 2-1. And while most still aren't ready to buy in on Beckman, his isn't on the hot seat anymore. The issue for him is more credit (and maybe justly so) is going to new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit for the Illini's turnaround than Tim Beckman. So right now, Illinois fans aren't really sure what to think of him. We are in a wait and see mode.
HB: Illinois is known more for basketball than football, but with the Illini looking much-improved this year, what kind of environment can the RedHawks expect to walk into Saturday?
CR: That's where I can say I really have no clue. Memorial Stadium, even when full isn't too intimidating of a stadium to play in. It just can't get that loud with the design it has, and most Illini fans themselves aren't the loudest at football games. Even the size of the crowd is up in the air. Yes, the Illini look much improved and worth buying a ticket for, but the team failed to sell many season tickets after last year's dumpster fire. The environment will be tougher to play in than a MAC game, but it won't be like playing at Penn State or Ohio State. Not even close.
HB: Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has had an interesting career following up Juice Williams and at times has looked fantastic, but had a rough season in 2012. He's off to a fantastic start this year though and seems poised to put up big numbers. Just how good is he, and what is working for him in his senior season?
CR: Scheelhaase is a good QB, that hasn't had much support over his career. He has tremendous field vision, and his instincts on options plays is tremendous. He doesn't have the strongest arm, but he and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit realize this. He doesn't try to play like he is Andrew Luck. He plays like he is Nathan Scheelhaase, a very good, smart QB. What is working for him this season is he is finally getting time to throw, thanks to the new system in place. The Illini are getting the ball out of his hands very quickly, and receivers are getting open thanks to some great play calling. I can't emphasize it enough, Bill Cubit is a offensive genius. We love him.
HB: The Illini haven't had a 100 yard rusher yet this season, and are near the bottom of the FBS in rushing. Is it a case of playing to the offense's strengths or is the lack of a running game signs of a deeper flaw? Are Illinois' fans worried at all about the one-dimensional offense?
CR: The reason we are struggling to run the ball is the offensive line is not very good. They struggled against both the Cincinnati and Washington defensive lines for the entirety of those game. The talent just isn't there on the offensive line to open up holes consistently enough for our RBs, both of whom are good runners. You always want to be able to run the ball, so it is a concern. But there are numerous other teams that seldom run the ball in the NCAA, and find great success. It isn't a necessity to run well in college football, but the Illini would like to see at least an effective running game to allow the offense to use play-action.
HB: What kind of offensive attack can Miami expect to see?
CR: The Illini are going to use multiple formations to get favorable matchups. That's what Bill Cubit wants to do. The Illini will throw the ball all around the field, using screens, short throws and long bombs to stress the Miami defense in multiple areas.
HB: Besides Scheelhaase, who are the names that Miami fans will hear a lot come Saturday?
CR: Ryan Lankford is a good WR. He has issues with drops, but he is very, very fast, and the Illini's best deep threat. Martize Barr, an juco transfer, has also looked very good in his first three games. Josh Ferguson has not only been the best RB, he has proven to be a very good option in the passing game, and he allows the Illini to motion out into empty sets to force defenses to adjust. On defense, it's all about the linebackers. Mason Monheim and Jonathan Brown are two great player. Monheim started off well last year as a true freshman, and he looks even better this year. Jonathan Brown is going to be playing on Sundays. He is a very fast and physical player, who is at his best when he is attack the ball. He is the best player on the team by far.
HB: Defensively, the Illini have given up more than 1,000 yards in their last two games, was it more of a case of facing good Cincinnati and Washington offenses, or can Miami fans expect to find some offensive success finally this weekend?
CR: This defense just isn't very good to put it lightly. Not only did Washington destroy this defense, Southern Illinois, an FCS school, gained over 400 yards on the defense. Tim Beckman was left with almost nothing in the cupboard and now has a defense that isn't close to the quality that a team in the Big Ten should have. Miami should expect to have some offensive success this weekend.
Thanks again to the Champaign Room and Brandon Birkhead. Check them out at TheChampaignRoom.com.