Saturday, September 29, 2012

New Era? Not Aboard This Sinking Ship.

New Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas fired Ron Zook after his team tanked last year down the stretch, dropping the final 6 games of the regular season after starting the season 6-0. Recruiting had fallen off, fans/boosters/alumni were all losing faith, Memorial Stadium was half empty, and it looked like the players were just going through the motions. Thomas graciously thanked Ron Zook for taking a program from the depths of what he inherited to a respectable Big Ten program, and promised Illini Nation that a new coach, with new energy, was necessary to take a program on the cusp of perennial success into a new era. Illinois was a sleeping giant, we were told, and the right coach could tap the existing talent on the team, change the culture and philosophy in Champaign, and bring in new top notch talent to guide Illinois into a new era. Thomas' answer was Tim Beckman, and he's given us a new era for sure. An era even worse than the one before it.

After that huge, embarrassing failure against Penn State today, which followed another huge embarrassing failure last week against Louisiana Tech, which came two weeks after another huge embarrassing failure against Arizona State, it's hard to even know where to start. The abyss into which this program has sunk is mind-boggling. There is a severe dearth of talent on the roster from the past few years when supposed recruiter extraordinaire Ron Zook couldn't even bring a full class of average players to Champaign. This has led to a top heavy program where the few veterans (and those that are healthy at that) that remain from Zook's better recruiting classes unfortunately cannot carry the team. The result is that a combination of both young players and players lacking in talent are attempting to fill the void on a Big Ten team. And it certainly shows.

The sad thing is that most of those veterans play on a defense that has been absolutely gashed all season. Where is the solid play of Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster, Jonathan Brown, Supo Sanni, Michael Buchanan, Terry Hawthorne, Steve Hull, Ashante Williams, or Justin Green? Those are talented players that played on a defense the past few years that was fierce and kept the Illini in games that they probably shouldn't have been in.

And that offense - what offense!?! It's beyond terrible. I feel every week like we're one of those programs that gets paid $500,000 to be a tune up game for the Florida States of the world. It's a complete farce. Our offensive line is utter garbage, a result of bad recruiting, a lack of depth, injuries, and a simple lack of talent. There is almost no skill at the skill positions, wide receiver in particular. Ryan Lankford leads a group that can't get any separation, nor seems to make catches when they do. The team has two talented running backs in Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson, but what are they supposed to do when the offensive line cannot create any running lanes, the wide receivers can't block on the edge, and the team is playing from behind most of the time?

Nate attempting what was surely an incomplete pass
And then there's Nate Scheelhaase at QB, someone who has regressed so unbelievably far from where he was two years ago as a freshman. I remember watching Nate then as a redshirt freshman starter and being excited at the possibilities for him and our program as he developed over the years. And yet here we are, two years later, with Nate unable to complete a pass downfield at all, displaying little to no accuracy, and generally failing at most of the things that quarterbacks are supposed to do. It's kind of sad that Josh Ferguson's touchdown pass on the trick play today looked almost the same as a Nate pass. He doesn't appear to be able to lead this team anywhere, especially given the fact that his ankle injury has taken away his greatest asset - his scrambling ability. There's just only so many horribly thrown passes, like the interception at the end of the first half that was nearly returned for a touchdown, or the numerous other throws that were either sailing over the receiver's head or throw yards behind him. I'm sure it doesn't help to not have any weapons to throw to, or a line to block for you, but Nate isn't hitting anything. It has essentially made our offense, like the team, a sinking ship without any lifeboats.

The key to the problems, though, and one that certainly will be the focus of most of the media attention going forward this season, is the coaching staff. To be sure, it's early in his tenure, but Tim Beckman and his staff appear to be outmatched in nearly every capacity. This is due to many different things, from hiring a staff full of recruiters and not pure coaches, to the fact that maybe, just maybe, he's not that good of a coach. The playcalling from co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty is unimaginative, boring, predictable, uninspired, and repetitive. Dump the ball into the flat for two yards. Read option, where the QB will certainly misread the play or the offensive line will blow their assignments, for a loss. Crossing pattern designed well below the first down marker for the three and out. Rinse, repeat.

I can't recall how many times the camera flashes to Beckman looking helpless on the sidelines with his weird orange tinted sunglasses. Beckman can yell and scream all he wants, but the simple fact is that he doesn't inspire or lead this team. A team doesn't have to be chock full of talent to play disciplined, intense, physical, tough, and smart football. Instead, those traits reflect the philosophies and teachings of the head coach. What do we see on the field? Muffed punts. Terrible interceptions. Stupid penalties like running into the kicker. The way his players quit on the field, if they even try, is eerily similar to Ron Zook.

And isn't he supposed to be a defensive specialist? Our defense is woeful. Coordinator Tim Banks, much like his offensive counterparts Gonzales and Beatty, is known more for recruiting than running a defense. His scheme is flat out embarrassing. Former coordinator Vic Koenning played an uptempo, aggressive style of defense that masked blitzes and wreaked havoc on opposing offenses with regularity. Even more than that, Koenning was able to get his players to play with a certain fire that made the defense that much better. Banks' system, if he even has one, is more of a read and react system that tries to pretend to be aggressive. Everything he does is obvious, and its why you see an average quarterback like Penn State's Matt McGloin sit back, read the defense, know what is coming, and check to another play or formation to counter Banks' "attack." It's pathetic, and even worse is how the players on defense don't look like they even care. Terrible tackling, lackadaisical efforts in pursuit, bad angles - these are all reflective of a coaching staff that at this point doesn't look like they can coach.

I understand that it's been 5 games in Beckman's tenure and that it would be premature to judge him just yet. But really, where do we go from here? He looks absolutely lost on the sideline. He can't explain or justify any of his or his team's actions to the media without some canned cliche coaching response. He claims that it takes time for his players to buy into and learn the system, yet gets trounced by first year coaches Todd Graham at Arizona State and Bill O'Brien at Penn State. Maybe he's in over his head. Maybe he needs his own recruits. Whatever. The fact remains that at this point in the season, I feel that Tim Beckman cannot lead Illinois anywhere but back to the dark ages of the Ron Turner Era.

Is he in over his head?
Take a look at the rest of the schedule. Illinois still has to play Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, Northwestern, Indiana, and Minnesota. Does anyone honestly believe we can win any of those games? Maybe we can eek out a victory or two against Indiana or Minnesota, but really, I think that this team will end up close to 10 losses. If that happens, it will mark an epic failure on Beckman's part to even continue the trend of an Illinois football program that has made a bowl game the past two years. Not to mention it could lead to the other "strength" of his, recruiting, starting to fall apart as well.

For now, the jury is still officially out on Beckman. But as it stands right now, I'm sick of all the pump you up, stereotypical dumb football coach nonsense, from his wife cooking lasagna for the team, to giving franks and beans to the losers of a scrimmage and steaks to the winners. He yells and shouts, and looks the part, but I frankly have not seen anything to give me any confidence that he can win at a big school in a major conference. And then there's the embarrassing Penn State recruiting debacle. Sure, other coaches were recruiting players after the Penn State sanctions were announced. But Beckman had to send 8 coaches to Penn State, where they arrived with much fanfare. It's just an example of a horribly managed situation that screams of inexperience and incompetence.

I just can't believe what we're seeing on the field. If all his competition mumbo jumbo was working, wouldn't we see players on the field fighting hard? There's enough talent on this team that even with the vanilla, boring schemes on offense and defense, a good amount of effort and discipline could carry them to a bowl game. But no - Beckman already looks like he's lost the team. Illinois came out with fancy new uniforms, with the best helmets I've ever seen Illinois wear, and the team was STILL uninspired. In fact, that's the best word to describe Tim Beckman's first year thus far as Illinois coach - uninspired. The fans are uninspired. The players are uninspired. The alumni are uninspired. Hell, even the coaches are uninspired. And from where we stand, it doesn't look like any of Beckman's magic "inspiration" is coming anytime soon.