Illini have taken care of business in 1st 4 games

Heading into 2013, three wins seemed almost too much to ask.

Maybe I’m just cynical, but even the most steadfast Illini fan would have been pleasantly surprised at the thought of a 3-1 record in the preconference, had you told them before the season.

But it’s not just the record that’s given Champaign reason for optimism, it’s the way in which Illinois carried itself throughout the season thus far.

Nobody believed in Illinois entering the year, and it took a couple games, it seems, for the team to become sure of itself. A frustratingly close win over Southern Illinois had fans thinking it was 2012 part II, but a statement win over Cincinnati changed things completely.

Illinois followed its 2-0 start with a hard-fought loss to a tough Washington team. If anything, the loss solidified Illinois as a team that is, at the very least, competitive.

Illinois further validated itself with its performance against Miami (Ohio). A 36-0 first half — more specifically a 29-0 second quarter — put the game away, and cemented that this season would be better than last, record-wise.

This win shouldn’t be a surprise, or a point of pride, as much as a relief. The Illini went into the game looking to blow out Miami and did just that. The second quarter blitzkrieg came after a ridiculous leaping grab by Evan Wilson was followed by an onside kick and 93-second drive. Josh Ferguson capped said drive by turning a swing pass into a highlight reel high-step touchdown from 15 yards out.

Ferguson has become Illinois’ best playmaker, the one Bill Cubit will try to get in open space as much as possible. He accrued 148 total yards, 71 rushing and 78 receiving, all on just 16 touches. Backfield mate Donovonn Young had 11 carries for 80 yards in what was arguably his best performance this year.

Still, though, this is Miami we’re talking about. Ferguson and Young will need to prove themselves on a bigger stage, and that opportunity comes next week.

Illinois is now 3-1 and heads into conference play with its head held high. The Illini will face their first true road test in Lincoln, Neb., against the Cornhuskers, who had a bye week following a 3-1 start.

As much as there is working against Illinois, this team feels alive for the first time in two years. Bo Pelini and Nebraska have had two weeks to prepare for this Illinois squad, which I would imagine is still tough to get a solid handle on given how much of a surprise the offensive renaissance has been.

Illinois’ defense, meanwhile, allowed just 250 yards — its first time surrendering fewer than 400 — and 14 points to the Redhawks. As good as those numbers seem, they’re the best Miami has mustered this season. Fourteen points ties its season high and 250 yards is 11 better than its previous best. The defense simply needs to play better for Illinois to succeed in the Big Ten.

This win is this win. You knew coming in you weren’t going to get a whole lot out of it, but you’re happy to be 3-1 if you’re Illinois.

I would say Illinois fans couldn’t have asked for a much better nonconference season, other than perhaps shoring things up a little more against Southern. But you got the win there, you trounced a decent Cincinnati team, you fought hard against Washington, and you asserted your dominance against Miami.

That’s all well and good, but it’s on to the next one. The Illini are going to compete in the Big Ten this year — not for the Big Ten just yet, but Illinois will not be a pushover win for its conference foes.

Illinois is a team playing above expectations. This is because its offense is dynamic and can advance the ball in a multitude of ways. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has re-emerged as a leader and one of the conference’s best offensive players. The defense is the weaker half. The linebackers are good — especially Jonathan Brown — the defensive line is so-so and the secondary is young.

Special teams is an area of concern. Taylor Zalewski and Justin DuVernois have been very up-and-down kicking the ball. V’Angelo Bentley and Miles Osei are good return men.

Illinois is 3-1 and worth watching, which is great news to an unsuspecting fan base. But now the real season begins. We’ll see if the Illini are up to the task.

Eliot is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @EliotTweet.