Academic issues, mistreatment of injured players and downright denial — that was the cloud hanging over the Illinois Fighting Illini football program as the 2015 season drew closer and closer.
That all changed as the Illini administration learned of the details of Beckman’s treatment of his players, and justice was swift (if not also untimely) as they fired him just days before the 2015 season got off the ground.
Did the firing lift a cloud from the Illini football program? What did 2015 really tell us about the state of a program that also went threw a second awkward firing just days before the start of 2016 spring football?
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of the strangest season in Illini football history.
As if there would be any other choice than to say the good for the Illini was in the firing of head coach Tim Beckman. Of course, the timing stunk, but at least the administration got all the facts and then made a swift and defining decision.
With Beckman gone, the cloud hanging over this team seemed to be lifted. At least the players were back to all pushing in one direction and pulling together instead of against each other.
Bill Cubit took over an awkward situation to be sure, but even a 5-7 season had to be considered a win given the fact that he had just a few weeks until the start of the season before he was given the interim job. The offense hummed along in terms of the passing game, the defense began to improve in a noticeable way and healing began to happen from within.
Not much more could have been asked of the Illinois football program in 2015.
When a team just fails to get to a bowl game, there is usually a direct reason for it. That was the case for Illinois in 2015 as they were on a high with a 14-13 win over Nebraska to open Big Ten play. Standing at 4-1 it appeared the Illini were in an improbable situation where a bowl game seemed pretty easy to achieve.
Instead, the Illini went on a three-game losing streak against West Iowa, Wisconsin and Penn State.
How does a team come away from a big victory and then fail to gain any momentum from it? Sure, Iowa and Wisconsin were difficult opponents, but that 39-0 loss to Penn State on the road was a kick in the pants to the Illini’s bowl game hopes.
It was also a brutal loss after showing promise against teams competing for the top of the West division the previous two weeks. Illinois produced just 12 first downs on the day to go along with a paltry 37 yards rushing and 130 yards passing.
The defense could only must up three sacks against Penn State, a team that had a statue of a quarterback and an offensive line that loved giving up sacks like they were going out of style. That loss was the final nail in the coffin to Illinois’ hopes — even if they still had games left to play.
If Illinois couldn’t hang with Penn State, it wasn’t going bowling in 2015.
Nothing was uglier in 2015 than the timing of the firing of head coach Tim Beckman, but we’ve harped enough on that. Unfortunately for the Illini on the field in 2015, there was something even uglier than the firing of Beckman — its running game.
The Illini passing game was just fine, ranking third in the Big Ten at season’s end. However, the running game was a complete afterthought, with the Illini ranking dead last in rushing yards per game (129.3) and a Big Ten-worst 13 rushing touchdowns the entire year as well.
A lot of that had to do with the fact that Bill Cubit and his son were in love with the passing game. Illinois neglected the run game to the tune of a Big Ten-worst 388 rushing attempts as a team for the season.
It was a shame, because senior Josh Ferguson and freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn were a nice 1-2 punch when they got the ball. The two combined for over 1,400 yards of offense and nine of the 13 rushing touchdowns Illinois had in 2015.
Expect that dynamic to change a bit with Lovie Smith coming on board and the talent that is there in Vaughn this season.
What Does it All Mean for 2016?
It is hard to imagine the 2015 season teaching us much of anything considering all the trials and tribulations this team underwent. However, there was a lesson to be learned and that lesson is that the days of the Illinois defense being a bottom-feeder in the Big Ten are over.
That defense will only get better under the leadership of new head coach Lovie Smith as well.
He can work with a defense that ranked eighth in scoring (23.3) and fifth in passing defense (184.4) last season.
The trick will be finding balance on offense, because Cubit and Co. certainly didn’t use their best weapons to the best of their abilities. We’ll see if that happens in 2016, but the easy money is on Smith and Co. finding that an easy transition.