The Illinois Fighting Illini finally ended their Big Ten losing streak yesterday, defeating the Purdue Boilermakers in West Lafayette 20-16. Now that the monkey is off the back of the Illini, the question is, where does Illinois go from here?
With bowl eligibility long since lost and only one game remaining on the schedule for this season, it’s time to start looking towards 2014 for head coach Tim Beckman and his staff. Beckman was hired with a goal of getting the Illini to a place of consistently contending for Big Ten championships. In order to get there, major improvements are going to need to be made on both sides of the ball.
Illinois is currently ranked 108th in the nation in total defense, thanks mostly in part to allowing an average of 247 rushing yards per game. In order for the Illini to compete in a Big Ten boasting teams that are proficient on the ground like Ohio State and Wisconsin, Illinois’ run defense is the first area of improvement. Current commits for the Illini on the defensive front seven include two two-star linebackers and a three-star defensive end.
Illinois will graduate only four of the defensive players on their current roster, which could be either a negative or positive for the Illini. While the returning players will enter next season with more games under their belts, questions can legitimately be asked about the talent ceiling about a unit that collectively has given up nearly 500 yards of offense per game.
There are questions on the offensive end as well. Illinois needs to find balance as far as a run-pass ratio goes, as it averages over twice as many yards passing as it does rushing. The graduation of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will also leave a huge hole for the Illini. Aaron Bailey will go into his sophomore season as the favorite to win the job, but there will be plenty of competition. As most of the offense has gone through Scheelhaase, getting similar, if not better, production out of their future quarterback will be vital if Illinois is to improve its standing in the Big Ten.
The immediate challenge for the Illini this coming week will be to break their home conference losing streak, as they will host the Northwestern Wildcats to end this season. If Illinois can knock off Northwestern and end the season on a tw0-game winning streak, there will be some sense of optimism in Champaign. What Beckman and his team do with that during the offseason will determine whether or not that continues into 2014 and beyond.