Despite offensive turnaround, same old story for Illini football

Illinois+Nathan+Scheelhaase+%282%29+runs+the+ball+during+the+game+against+Northwestern+at+Memorial+Stadium+in+Champaign%2C+Ill.+on+Saturday%2C+Nov.+30%2C+2013.+The+Illini+lost+37-34.

Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase (2) runs the ball during the game against Northwestern at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013. The Illini lost 37-34.

By By: Stephen Bourbon

In year two of the Tim Beckman era for Illinois football, while there was progress made on the field, the results were mostly the same when compared with his first season in Champaign.

Beckman and the Illini followed up a 2-10 (0-8 Big Ten) season in 2012 with a 4-8 (1-7) campaign in 2013.

“These seniors put their lives into this last year to try and build this program which was at the bottom,” Beckman said after a loss to Northwestern on Nov. 30. “We fell short in a few football games, no question, but I’m proud of the way these seniors led this football team.”

Under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, the Illini were immediately a top-tier offense, reaching at least 42 points in three of the first four contests and starting out the season 3-1.

The entire Illini offense took huge strides under Cubit’s tutelage. The offense increased its points per game total from 16.7 to 29.7, as well as its total yards per game from 296.7 to 426.7. Two of the main beneficiaries of the changes were seniors Nathan Scheelhaase and Steve Hull.

Scheelhaase posted career-highs with a 66.7 percent completion percentage, as well as 3,272 yards and 21 touchdowns. Scheelhaase, normally known for his running ability, also notched a career-best passer rating at 140.7.

As for Hull, 2013 was his first full year as a wide receiver since high school. Hull made the switch in the spring of 2013 from safety because of chronic shoulder injuries and was the Illini’s primary target in the second half of the year. After only seven catches for 176 yards in the team’s first five games, Hull finished the year with 993 yards receiving and a team-high seven touchdowns. Hull averaged 163.3 yards per game in his final collegiate games.

Once Big Ten play hit, however, the Illini defense couldn’t get enough stops to keep the team in games, en route to a 1-7 mark in conference play.

Illinois gave up 37 or more points in six of the eight conference games, including three games where Illini opponents put up 50 or more points.

The Illini finally broke through on November 23 on the road against Purdue (1-11, 0-8). In one of the team’s worst offensive outputs of the season — five turnovers against the Boilermakers’ 104th-ranked defense — it was the maligned defense that showed up. Purdue notched zero points off the five Illini turnovers and recorded just 283 yards and 11 first downs on the day.

Purdue drove down the field to the Illini 30-yard line with 1:06 remaining before V’Angelo Bentley intercepted Purdue’s Danny Etling on fourth down. Hull ran out of the back of the endzone for a safety to waste the final seconds and secure the 20-16 victory. The conference victory was the first of Beckman’s career at Illinois and snapped a 20-game conference losing streak.  

“We were able to achieve tonight,” Beckman said after the Purdue win. “I couldn’t be more proud of our football team tonight.”

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.