CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) – After a couple of wins early last season, Illinois went on a long downhill slide.
A once-stiff defense gave up points in bunches, the offense lost its punch, and injuries and a thin roster doomed Illinois to a 2-10 finish with zero wins in the Big Ten.
The Illini getting ready to open the season Saturday against Southern Illinois, linebacker Jonathan Brown insists, are not that team.
Those Illini had talent seven were on NFL rosters as preseason cranked up. But Brown, without naming names, said some were too focused on individual goals.
“Sometimes you get caught up in your individual accomplishments. You can start thinking about yourself more than others,” he said. “You’ve got to take yourself out of the equation. That’s something I’ve tried to do.”
The Salukis, a Championship Subdivision school coming off a 6-5 season, look like the most winnable game on an Illinois schedule that will quickly get more difficult Cincinnati, a 10-3 bowl team last fall, comes to town next.
But Southern Illinois has a win against the Big Ten in the not-so-distant past, a 35-28 victory at Indiana in 2006. That Indiana team, like Illinois now, was trying to find its footing after a losing season.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman, a veteran of the small school-big school games from, among other stops, his days as head coach at Toledo, is hardly penciling in a win.
“I’ve been on that side at Toledo, I was on that side at Bowling Green when we went to Ohio State,” he said. “Football’s football, and everybody goes out, plays to win. But you have that special feeling when you play your in-state school. … We’re going to get everything they’ve got.”
Here are five things to watch as the Illini and Salukis open 2013:
GETTING HOT: The forecast for Saturday in Champaign: An afternoon high of 92 with the heat index right at 100, according to the National Weather Service. Beckman said he plans to liberally substitute players, but, with a thin, young team, he said he would have done that anyway.
“You’re going to see some freshmen out there playing on Saturday,” he said. “That’s just the way we’re going to get better.”
UNDER CENTER: Fifth-year senior Nathan Scheelhaase is the starting quarterback for Illinois, but new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and Beckman both said he won’t take every snap. Second-teamer Reilly O’Toole, who played regularly last fall, will see the field, Cubit said. And one of those freshmen likely to play is third-string quarterback Aaron Bailey of Bolingbrook, Ill., whose arm strength surprised his coaches during preseason practices.
“I think we all see he’s a great athlete. There’s certain things I think he’ll be pretty good at,” Cubit said.
PRESSURE ON THE DEFENSE: Illinois’ defense was at the top of the list of the most puzzling Illinois problems last season. They were among the best in the country in 2011 but gave up 32 points a game in 2012. A big problem was Brown’s injury struggles. Now he’s back and apparently healthy, joining sophomore linebacker Mason Monheim anchoring a defense that could face a test on the ground Saturday. Along with junior running back Mika’il McCall (489 yards, 130 carries and eight touchdowns in 2012) the Salukis added transfers Malcolm Agnew from Oregon State and Ken Malcome from Georgia.
EXPECT THE BLITZ: The Saluki defense presents a potential problem for the Illini and an offensive line that was a weak spot in 2012 that they may not see again all year, Scheelhaase said. They’ll blitz more, he said, than anyone in the Big Ten is likely to.
“They may be a little bit undersized but they make up for with their ability to move people around and get players flying everywhere,” he said. “Oh yeah, they blitz a whole lot.”
ABOUT LAST TIME: Illinois and Southern Illinois haven’t played since 2010, a 35-3 Illini win that, for a time, was much closer than that. It was a game that coach Dale Lennon might like to have back.
“I tried to push things probably more than I should have. We were in the red zone four times that game and only came away with three points, went for it twice on fourth down and also tried an early field goal attempt from 56 yards,” he said. “So really, we were looking for the big play.”
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