By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) If Tim Beckman’s coaching career at Illinois really does go from knocking on death’s door to cracking – or even kicking – it open for his return in 2014, he’ll probably be able to thank heavens for one person.
Namely, Bill Cubit.
Through two games (and wins) this season, Cubit, the former Western Michigan head coach, has helped Illinois pile up 97 points as the team’s new offensive coordinator. With the Illini preparing to face No, 19 Washington (1-0) at Soldier Field this Saturday, the offense looks like a completely different unit than the one that averaged only 16.7 points per game during Beckman’s sadsack 2-10 debut in 2012.
Also looking completely different is fifth-year quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who under Cubit’s tutelage has torched opposing defenses for 364 yards per game and a 74 percent completion percentage – both best among Big Ten signal-callers. So far, Scheelhaase much more resembles the QB who as a redshirt freshman outplayed Robert Griffin III in the 2010 Texas Bowl than the guy who threw just four TDs (and eight INTs) last year.
Illinois, of course, is yet to get into its Big Ten schedule this season (in 2012 it averaged only 11.8 points while going winless in conference). But following last week’s shocking 45-17 rout of Cincinnati, hope is percolating across the prairie that the Illini might actually be able to contend for an unexpected bowl berth this season.
And perhaps the most powerful fact fueling such hopes?
It’s that Tim Beckman, as overwhelmed as he’s looked in Champaign, actually can win games with a great offensive coordinator. We know that, because it’s happened before.
At Toledo, where Beckman served as head coach before matriculating to Illinois, he went just 5-7 during his first season as head coach in 2009. In 2010, however, Beckman made the wise decision to anoint 29-year-old wunderkind Matt Campbell as his offensive coordinator and immediately the Rockets program took off.
In 2010-11, Toledo went on to compile a 16-9 record that included a 14-2 mark in the MAC, numbers that allowed Beckman to make the leap to the Big Ten. During his last season in northeastern Ohio, Beckman’s Rockets offense devised by Campbell averaged a whopping 42 points, even topping 60 twice, as the team compiled a 9-4 record. In the meantime, Toledo’s defense gave up a far less-than-impressive 30.9 points per game.
Defense is supposed to be Beckman’s forte, but the concern is that it will continue to be the Illini’s Achilles’ heel this season, just as it was last year when Illinois yielded a staggering average of 37.8 points per game in the team’s 10 losses.
However, if Illinois can keep the offense humming at anything close to the level that we’ve seen in its 2-0 start, the Illini should be able to compete against most teams, even if the defense remains leaky.
Last season, when Campbell was promoted to replace Beckman as head coach, Toledo enjoyed another 9-4 campaign as the Rockets’ offense kept on flying high. Meanwhile, in Champaign, Beckman’s co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzalez swapped calls – and shared ineptness – as Illinois scored more than 17 points only twice in 12 games.
With the experienced and inventive Cubit now taking the Illini’s offensive reins, I suppose it’s possible that Beckman’s program could perhaps experience a bounce-back similar to what happened at Toledo. We should find out a lot more about that potential this weekend against the heavyweight Huskies.
This year, by the way, Toledo is 0-2 on the season – and in the SEC – as the Rockets started off 2013 with tough road games at Florida and Missouri. In the pair of losses, the Rockets’ offense has averaged only 14.5 points.
Who knows, maybe even Matt Campbell could use Bill Cubit too.
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.