There is a pretty consistent trend among blogs that cover programs with two major revenue sports. If one of the two teams is in the tank, you are able to keep your sanity by overlooking that sport and focusing on the other. Such is the case in Illini Nation right now where fans are trying to bury their memories of year one of the Tim Beckman experiment by focusing on the undefeated Illini basketball team and new head coach John Groce. You can’t blame them. Fans were clamoring for Ron Zook to be gone and they got their wish, despite the fact the program won a bowl game last year. Despite our relative mastery of the Illini over the past 20 seasons until 2010, they still don’t have that bowl thing hanging over their head. Now, however, fans have to be wondering when and even if they’ll ever be bowl bound again. Things are that bad, just months after firing Ron Zook. Tim Beckman enters the trophy game with the weight of a 13-game conference losing streak and the very real possibility of going 0-8 in his first year. Tom Fornelli bravely raised the flag for Illini fans who had a void in the SB Nation blogosphere. So today, we welcome Tom and his blog, The Champaign Room, as it takes a good sport to volunteer to come on to LTP as a rival and answer some questions. Be sure to check there daily to get the latest and greatest on our rival. Let’s jump in, shall we?
LTP: Obviously, those familiar with the history of this relatively close series are very keen to the fact one team usually enters this game as a heavy favorite, yet, the underdog has done pretty well over the past 20 years. What is giving Illini fans hope that the Illini can upset the ‘Cats this weekend in Evanston?
TCR: The only thing giving Illini fans hope right now is John Groce and the basketball team. The football team has been a black hole of suck this year. It’s gotten so bad that despite the fact that we just lost at home to Purdue — we’ve lost our last three home games to Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue, we’re just that good — yet there was a part of me that was excited because we managed to score two touchdowns.
There really is no hope from this end that we’re going to beat Northwestern. You are a much better football team and while our defense may be better statistically, it’s only because your defense hasn’t gotten to face our offense yet. We’ll fix those numbers for you right quick.
LTP: Recent reports in the Chicago media (Chicago Tribune to be specific) have not painted a pretty picture between some notable boosters and AD Mike Thomas and/or the job Tim Beckman is doing. How much heat is there on Thomas and Beckman. Is it conceivable either could be gone by the end of the year?
TCR: It’s impossible for there not to be heat on you when you’ve lost 13 straight Big Ten games, but the odds that either Beckman or Thomas are gone at the end of the year are somewhere between slim and none. First of all, Thomas’ hire of Groce looks great at the moment, so I think the heat on him will die down.
As for Beckman, unless there’s a big name coach ready to take the job over, you can’t fire him. You can’t fire a coach after only one season and expect any other coach will want the job. I mean, Mike Thomas has already undergone three coaching changes since coming to Champaign. He’s not looking to go through a fourth.
LTP: The Illini feature a slew of defensive studs – several will say 3 or 4 certain NFL draft picks. What’s going on with this defense that is giving up around 30 ppg?
TCR: Injuries and the offense. There are plenty of good players on this unit, but guys like Jonathan Brown have been missing games with injuries all season long. Then there’s an offense that can’t stay on the field and keeps forcing this defense to play. I don’t care how good you are, if you have to spend the majority of the game on the field, you’re going to give up points.
LTP: Clearly, offense has been an issue. It seemed as though Nathan Scheelhaase was a rising star as he (along with AJ Jenkins) gave NU fits last year and seemed very Kain Colter-like. What are the top three reasons for the offense’s demise this season?
TCR: Biggest reason is the offensive line. IT all begins there, and this line is terrible. There’s no getting around the fact that this offense will be bad until it’s overhauled. The second reason is Scheelhaase. He had to learn a new offense this year, but got hurt early in the year and missed a few games. So then he’s pretty much thrown into Big Ten play at less than 100% health and he still learning the offense. Which has caused him to lose confidence. He’s slow in his reads and he’s shellshocked thanks to an offensive line that’s allowed him to be sacked 37 times this season.
The third reason would be play-calling. The Illini actually have a coordinator calling plays on first and second down and another coordinator doing third down. Kind of hard to get an offensive groove going that way, and even though it’s up to the players to execute the play being called — which they aren’t — some of the play-calling decisions aren’t doing the players any favors, either.
LTP: You likely know that Northwestern has two completely different looking offensive approaches. One is an option attack led by Kain colter with RB Venric Mark. The other is more of the pass-happy version of the spread led by Trevor Siemian. Which do you believe will give the Illini more of a challenge or will the combo of the two be the proper recipe to keep the Illini D on its heels.
TCR: Oh they’ll both be plenty of trouble. While our defensive strength is the front seven, Colter and Mark are too good to think that we’re going to keep a lid on them. We might stop them more often than not, but at some point Mark is going to break off a big run.
As for Siemian, he should expect plenty of snaps this week, because there is no team in the conference with a worse defensive pass efficiency than our 147.87 mark.
LTP: What evidence have you seen of late to suggest Northwestern fans should be worried. Can you give a particular example of a unit match-up that favors the orange and blue?
TCR: The only worries you should have are the health of Colter and Mark. If neither of them can play then you might have to squeak out a close victory. If they do play, this should be over by the third quarter.
LTP: How is 2013 looking based on losses to graduation and recruiting commits to date. How improved do you expect the Illini to be in 2013?
TCR: It’s tough to say. Beckman has said he plans to hit the juco ranks to fill some holes, but there are just so many holes to fill. The entire offensive line needs to be overhauled, and on defense odds are the entire defensive line will be gone should Akeem Spence go pro. We’ll also lose Ashante Williams and three-fourths of our secondary.
Which is NOT good news. If there is good news, it’s that Beckman’s first recruiting class is well regarded, as Rivals currently considers it the 22nd ranked class nationally and third in the Big Ten. It’s just I don’t think that the class is good enough to come in and fix everything. So it’s obvious that if Beckman is going to turn things around, he’s going to need a few more years.
TCR: PAIN. Seriously, I’m guessing something like Northwestern 38-10.
LTP: Thanks Tom, we appreciate the effort. We’re too seasoned in this long standing rivalry to get caught overlooking this downtrodden edition of the Illini. We’re also looking forward to seeing the ‘Cats-Illini basketball games this season as that rivalry sure has kicked in over the past few years.
Kafka Thanksgiving Break?
Mike Kafka may have caught a break. With the obvious injury issues at QB for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Tomllin is scrambling for a back-up to Charlie Batch. Mike Kafka, the former Eagle, is competing with former Patriots back-up Brian Hoyer for the job. Both worked out with the Steelers on Tuesday. Obviously, if Kafka wins the job, he will likely become villified by the arch-enemy Eagles fan base, but perhaps not, since it was Andy Reid who released him. That fan base is likely fretting that Kafka will somehow step in and lead the Steelers on a victory run further pouring salt in the wound of the Eagles miserable season.
Northwestern football attendance and school marketing are one of the top three hot buttons of this blog’s readership. Crain’s Chicago offers up some fodder for fans to digest and discuss as it talks about pretty much everything we already know – NU is using “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” as part of a marketing strategy to embrace the casual college sports fan. It offers up all kinds of stats on increased attendance, increased sponsors and the ongoing push by Mike Polisky and crew to not settle until we get to 47,130 almost all purple. The article does a poor job of addressing things like the Nebraska sellout, which was at least 50% Nebraska, as pulling that average way up from what it would be otherwise. Kudos to Polisky, Phillips and the team as it reads like an article that they wrote themselves. I’m all for the positive purple spin, and the way that key sponsor BMO/Harris Bank is woven in to the story. Hopefully it catches the eyes of other potential sponsor decision makers.
With so many things going on this week, I thought it was worth a TV Guide approach to your next few days. So, without further ado, here is what we have on tap.
- A day after publishing the most comprehensive explanation of the actual bowl rules and what it means for Northwestern, we’re putting Brett Kurland back on stage and he’s got an interview with a BCS bowl exec on the state of bowl mindsets and how it all relates to Northwestern. Plus, he’s put a lasso around all of the media members’ projections for the ‘Cats.
- This evening we’ll be launching a primer on the ‘Cat-Illini rivalry with some historical context of the memorable and forgettable games.
- At some point tonight or tomorrow PRR will be examining the ‘Cats big play ability in 2012 and what it all means
- AM – Thanksgiving post on 22 seniors
- Midday – IL/NU Paint By Numbers
- Evening – Top Ten Word Associations Illini Edition (run through morning of Friday)
We’ve got you penciled in to be watching some unsatisfying college football and at best some Iowa schadenfreude, so have no fear, pull out your Ipad and follow along with enough NU content to keep you busy until tip-off vs TCU Friday night and of course kickoff on Saturday. Take a gander:
- Early morning – Continuation of Top Ten Random Word Associations: Illini edition
- Mid-morning – Fearless Forecast
- Mid afternoon – ‘Cats – TCU Hoops Preview – South Padre Invitational
- Nighttime – ‘Cats – TCU Hoops Recap
- 2 am – Gameday Post for ‘Cats-Illini
- Postgame – PRR’s weekly game reca
- TBD Depending upon whether NU Hoops is in finals or consolation v ISU/UAB – Preview
- Saturday night – NU Hoops vs ISU/UAB Recap
- Morning– The Great, The Good & The Disappointing
- Afternoon – Top 25 Rankings & Brett Kurland’s Bowl Scenario update
Simply put, we’ll be setting a new record for total amount of posts in a four day span. Gotta love it! Be thankful I’m still recovering from a serious infection due to my back surgery and I’m mostly couch-bound this week hooked up to an IV. Stinks for me, beneficial to you!