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.
Predicting the 2018 Illinois Fighting Illini season game-by-game
We’re nearing game week and that means it is time to gather all the intel possible and make the best decisions possible…because it’s time to put our money where our mouths are.
Yes, the annual tradition of Illinois Fighting Illini season predictions is back. Yes, we’re also going to break down the season in game-by-game fashion.
No, you won’t see it in the written form. Instead, we’re going 21st century and giving you our publisher, Andrew Coppens, thoughts in video format.
The Illini went first (no coincidence to alphabetical order), so you can follow along by subscribing to our YouTube channel as well.
Illini look to fresh jerseys to help reboot football program
Illinois reaches to its successful past in hopes of sparking interest in struggling football program of today. It means new uniforms for the football program.
Nothing says trying to shed a bad image like rebooting your jersey and helmet looks. When you’re the Illinois Fighting Illini and you’ve compiled a whopping 5-19 overall record and just two Big Ten wins in the last two years, a reboot is probably a good idea.
On Friday morning, the Illini announced exactly that, keeping the school colors and even the Gray Ghost uniforms they have worn to pay homage to the Galloping Ghost himself, Harold “Red” Grange. The new uniforms feature a much simpler look and a more defined block “I” on the v of the neck.
For you old-timers out there, these uniforms are likely to look very familiar to you. That’s because they harken back to the Illini glory days of the Dick Butkus era in the 1960’s.
One of the biggest additions to the uniform combinations is that of a re-designed orange helmet. Gone is the metallic look, replaced by a matted finish and a color that more accurately fits the uniform color as well.
Illinois will begin wearing the new gear for the home opener on Sept. 1 against Kent State and of course will begin to be available for purchase (blue only apparently) this fall as well.
As for the design, I like the simplified look and feel of the jersey. Illinois has a color scheme that stands out in the Big Ten, so why try to hide it. Instead, they are embracing history and moving forward to hopefully more success.
With all the momentum off the field, hopefully Love Smith and crew can deliver some of that same momentum on the field. We’ll have an idea about that when the Illini hold an open practice tomorrow, April 7.
Lovie Smith hits home run with Rod Smith’s hire as OC
Lovie Smith hires prolific spread offensive coordinator Rod Smith in hopes of jump-starting a stagnant Illinois Fighting Illini offense.
Just one day after two former starting quarterbacks announced their departure from the Illinois Fighting Illini program, the Illini went out and announced a huge hire.
On Friday afternoon, head coach Lovie Smith announced the hire of former Arizona offensive coordinator to the same position for the Illini.
“Rod Smith brings terrific and exciting offensive experience to our staff at Illinois,” Lovie Smith said. “His background and development of dual-threat quarterbacks and multiple-threat offenses is the direction we are going here. Rod has developed explosive quarterback play and offensive performance at each of his coaching stops.”
It was huge get for the head coach because Cam Thomas, who is a true dual threat quarterback is literally the only scholarship quarterback on the roster until the fall.
Smith comes to Illinois after leading one of the most explosive offenses in the country at Arizona. Smith helped lead an offense that averaged 41.3 points (5th nationally), 309.3 rushing yards, 180.2 passing yards and 489.5 total yards (12th nationally) per game. Wildcat quarterback Khalil Tate rushed for 1,411 yards (9.2 yards per carry), while completing 62 percent of his passes for 1,591 passing yards with 14 touchdowns.
Most importantly, Smith has an extensive background as a quarterbacks coach, and that background will be tested by the rawness of Cam Thomas’ game and two incoming recruits this fall.
He’s had success not just with one quarterback in the fold at Arizona as well, working with Anu Solomon for three seasons prior to Tate taking over at quarterback. Solomon completed his three-year playing career with the third-most passing touchdowns and fourth-most passing yards in UA history. In 2014, Solomon threw for 2,793 yards and 28 touchdowns, with only nine interceptions.
That kind of production and long-term output at quarterback is sorely needed for the Illini to turn things around. Just how fast can Smith mold Thomas? He’ll get a really good opportunity with a cleared quarterback room this spring.
Illini have no choice but Cam Thomas at QB now
Two quarterbacks announce transfers within a matter of hours on Wednesday, leaving the Illini with only Cam Thomas on scholarship.
The Illinois Fighting Illini went in to this offseason with three quarterbacks who started games in 2017. It took just one day for that to completely change though.
On Wednesday night, redshirt junior quarterback Jeff George Jr. announced he would be graduating in the spring with a degree in Management and will transfer from the program as a graduate transfer. He will have two seasons of eligibility left wherever she goes.
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” – Jeremiah 29:11 pic.twitter.com/of61WXyUtK— Jeff George Jr (@jgeorgeqb) January 17, 2018
Chayce Crouch then announced that he was retiring from football period after an injury-riddled career at Illinois.
Thank you Illini Nation! I will always bleed Orange and Blue 🔶🔷 pic.twitter.com/Gl78tfH46Q— Chayce Crouch (@teccrouch7) January 17, 2018
So, what was once a potentially three-man race for the starting quarterback job just became a one-man race and the winner by default is sophomore quarterback Cam Thomas.
He’ll have a lot of work to do this offseason though, because his opening campaign was a rough one on the stat sheet. Thomas completed just 42.4 percent of his passes (28 of 66) for 375 yards and zero touchdowns to five interceptions.
In four games he also rushed for 233 yards and a touchdown. Thomas was clearly much more comfortable as a runner than a thrower in the Big Ten.
The question is, will the lessons learned in those four games as a starter be enough to push him in to being the guy that turns things around for the stagnant Illini offense.
Thomas is easily the leader in the clubhouse given he’s the only quarterback on the roster with any experience, but he will be joined in the fall by 2018 signee M.J. Rivers. He is a 6-4, 213-pound dual threat quarterback that was ranked as the No. 26 dual threat QB in the country.
It means the Illini will go in to spring ball with just one scholarship quarterback on the roster and in to the 2018 season with just two scholarship quarterbacks at all.
Lovie Smith now has to trust in Thomas and pray he’s the answer they’ve been looking for or it may be curtains for his time at the helm of the Illini program.