By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) When it comes to Illinois football, I’m not hitting the panic button just yet – even though the Illini themselves apparently were this past Saturday night.
“Guys were panicking, everybody yelling, trying to get the (play) call,” Illinois junior defensive tackle Akeem Spence told the Associated Press on Monday as he recalled the confusion that reigned during the Illini’s 45-14 disaster in the desert at Arizona State.
“I had to ask guys what the call was, you know, and they’re yelling all over the place,” Spence continued. “We can’t do that as a defense. I mean, we’re supposed to be the strength of the team.”
Yeah, that’s what the rest of us thought, too.
However, while getting roasted by the Sun Devils out in Tempe, the Illini – without injured QB Nathan Scheelhaase – didn’t really show any strengths at all, only weaknesses. So, while I’m not hitting that orange-and-blue panic button just yet, my finger is twitching atop it for a variety of reasons, which I’ll explain.
On Monday, though, I was wondering what Illini Nation was feeling and decided to check its pulse via Twitter by asking just how concerned Illinois fans were about the team after the ASU debacle.
I discovered a mixed bag of reactions. On the sunnier side, @CaptainIllini tweeted, “it’s still only one loss. I want to see how the #Illini respond after the Tempe sh*t show. Gotta get back up and fight. #pride”
Echoing such optimistic thoughts, @gknuter711 added, “not all that concerned. Yes, the ASU game was rough, but the offense is different with Nate and the D could excel in a weak #B1G”
Others, however, were more stressed about the Illini’s state. @EP211 tweeted, “very concerned. No identity on offense whether [QB] Nate [Scheelhaase] is healthy or not. Lack of speed at Wr, [lack] of a push from the OL.” Meanwhile, @michaelellars added, “very worried about the #illini. Seem like same ole team. No offense.”
And on Saturday night, no defense either as ASU racked up 510 yards overall, including 318 yards and three touchdowns through the air. That turn of events was particularly dispiriting for an Illini team that last season boasted the seventh best defense in the nation and returned a bevy of veteran starters this year.
However, even more disconcerting for me was the Illini’s apparent lack of preparation for Arizona State’s up-tempo offense. Today in his column in the Champaign News-Gazette, longtime Illini scribe Loren Tate shared Spence’s elaboration about the Illini’s mass defensive confusion vs. the Sun Devils.
“We had practiced getting signals communicated from the sideline,” Spence explained, “but they caught us off guard with the speed of their tempo. It was a case of missed communication. During the week, we had scripted five or six defensive calls in advance. When the coaches made changes, some of the guys were still running the scripted plays while others changed.”
Weighing in on the darting Sun Devils, first-year Illini coach Tim Beckman told the AP, “They’re running two and three receivers through a zone. We had a couple of miscommunications in our man coverage. I think the speed in which they were running the plays, it’s something that’s hard to practice but we did practice it as best as we could.”
And that comment is what really worries me. Because, if Saturday’s woeful outcome truly was the result of the Illini practicing “as best as they could” under Beckman & Co.’s tutelage, then Illinois is in serious trouble.
After all, this Illini defense is not bereft of talent – not at all – but on Saturday night it was bereft of necessary awareness and preparation. There’s no shame in losing at ASU – which, mind you, also has a new coach and QB – but the level of Illini embarrassment a shame indeed.
And, to be sadly honest, Beckman’s quote sounded like something that would have come out of Ron Zook’s mouth during any one of his many befuddled seasons in Champaign.
I’ve been hoping to see – and hear – much better from Beckman since he took over the Illini reins from Zook. But as much as I really want to be encouraged about the guy, I can’t help but be concerned about some of Beckman’s behavior (for example, his overly enthusiastic “LASAGNA” quote during his introductory press conference was amusing, but it was also, well, odd) and his decision-making (the choice to send eight Illini coaches to recruit on Penn State’s campus was a poor example of program management in my book).
Not to mention, Beckman’s Toledo team gave up 30.9 points per game last season – not so hot for a “defensive-oriented” coach.
Now, again, it’s very early in the season – and, of course, in Beckman’s Illini tenure. There’s certainly plenty of time for things to get better. But, considering the number of key players that the Illini roster will lose after this season and the hurdles facing Beckman recruiting-wise, he needs to put together a solid season now.
And, so, this Illini team needs to get better very soon if the Illini program is to have a chance of also getting better in the future.
Don’t count on this Saturday’s game against Charleston Southern to tell us much more about the Illini, but the following week vs. Louisiana Tech could indeed be telltale.
And right now, it’s unclear if the story will be good or bad.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.