Illinois Fighting Illini football heads into a bye week that feels awfully familiar. This feels a lot like 2013; a second-year head coach with a very inexperienced team. Four years ago, Tim Beckman lost quite a few defensive starters from the 2012 squad he inherited from Ron Zook, and, sure enough, the defense struggled. This was very clear in the uncomfortable 42-34 win over Southern Illinois to open the season. Opening the year against a mediocre Ball State team and being unable to move the ball felt the same, except instead of the defense struggling it was the offense.
Week 2 of each season saw Illinois host a big favorite and neutralize their highly-touted offense. Just as our 20-7 win over Western Kentucky played out in surprising fashion this year, the 2013 squad’s 45-17 win over Cincinnati was certainly not what I expected to see when I took the trip to Champaign. Maybe this young team was better than anticipated.
In Week 3, each team left Champaign to play a ranked opponent. Illinois was overmatched against No. 22 South Florida this year, but four years ago they had a whiff of hope all day against No. 19 Washington at Soldier Field. Though Washington broke the game open in the third quarter with 21 points behind the explosive running of Bishop Sankey, redshirt senior Nathan Scheelhaase responded, and with some help from the much-heralded true freshman quarterback Aaron Bailey on a gadget play, the Fighting Illini cut the lead to seven with nine minutes left to play. Unfortunately, Washington shredded the young Illini defense yet again for a five-minute field goal drive, and a Scheelhaase interception would end the comeback hopes.
An early bye with a surprising 2-1 conference record came, just as this year. There was some optimism but a lot of questions remained. Illinois would come out of the bye week in 2013 by blasting Miami (OH) 50-14 for the most decisive win over a MAC team that I can remember. This year, they’ll host a floundering Nebraska offense under the lights coming out of their bye week. Can they have a similar result?