Aug. 25, 2014
The Fighting Illini open their 125th year of football on Saturday, the third for head coach Tim Beckman, who is looking to keep the program's momentum going forward after doubling the win total between years one and two. Beckman was 21-16 in three years at Toledo before going 2-10 in his first season in Champaign-Urbana and 4-8 in his second.
Illinois enters 2014 with a streak of 16 consecutive home-opening wins, the fourth-longest streak in the Big Ten behind Ohio State (35), Nebraska (28) and Wisconsin (18). Illinois is 86-33-5 all-time in home-openers.
The Illini have an all-time record of 77-42-5 in season-openers and are 54-27-4 when opening the season at home. The Illini have won their last eight season-openers at Memorial Stadium dating back to 1997.
Illinois opens the 2014 season looking to reach a bowl game for the third time in the last five years, after winning the 2010 Texas Bowl (over Baylor) and 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (over UCLA) before a two-year bowl drought in 2012 and 2013.
Illinois is 13-0 all-time against FCS teams (formerly I-AA), with an average margin of victory of over 28 points per game. See below for a full list of Illinois FCS results.
The Illinois offense made huge improvements in 2013 under OC Bill Cubit. The Illini jumped at least 50 spots in the national rankings from 2012 to 2013 in first downs, passing offense, long scrimmage plays, total offense, passing efficiency and scoring offense, with the biggest turnaround an 95-place jump in first downs per game.
| ILLINOIS' OFFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT IN 2013
|Category||2012 (Nat'l Rk)||2013 (Nat'l Rk)||Difference|
|First Downs (per game)||16.4 (120)||24.0 (25)||+95
|Passing Offense (ypg)||138.83 (107)||287.7 (22)||+85
|Scrim. plays of 20+ yd||34 (122)||64 (44)||+78|
|Total Offense (ypg)||296.67 (119)||426.7 (46)||+73|
|Passing Efficiency||113.42 (102)||140.63 (35)||+67|
|Scoring Offense (ppg)||16.67 (119)||29.7 (61)||+58|
Entering 2014, Illinois has streaks of 61 games and 174 attempts without missing a PAT kick, which both rank as the third-longest active streaks in the nation, respectively. The last time the Fighting Illini did not convert a PAT kick was on Sept. 5, 2009, against Missouri.
LUNT EARNS STARTING NOD
Sophomore Wes Lunt was named the starting quarterback on Aug. 21 for the Fighting Illini's season-opener, beating out senior Reilly O'Toole and sophomore Aaron Bailey in an offseason competition to replace four-year starter and UI all-time total offense record holder Nathan Scheelhaase. Lunt started five games at Oklahoma State in 2012 before transferring to Illinois during the summer of 2013 and redshirting last season. He completed 81-of-131 passes (61.8 percent) for 1,108 yards, six touchdowns and seven interceptions in six games at OSU.
YOUNGSTOWN STATE CONNECTIONS
Saturday will be the first meeting on the gridiron between the Fighting Illini and Youngstown State.
Three of Youngstown State's coaches have a tie to the University of Illinois in their recent past, as head coach Eric Wolford, assistant head coach/defensive line coach Tom Sims and run-game coordinator/offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo all coached at Illinois. Wolford was offensive line coach under Ron Zook in 2007-08, while Sims was Zook's defensive line coach from 2005-08. Bricillo was a graduate assistant under Zook in 2009, assisting with the offensive line.
New Youngstown State president Jim Tressel provides another connection to Illinois as Illini head coach Tim Beckman was Tressel's cornerbacks coach at Ohio State in 2005-06, helping the Buckeyes to the 2006 Fiesta Bowl and the 2007 BCS National Championship Game. The Buckeyes were 22-3 during Beckman's tenure in Columbus, as he coached six All-Big Ten defensive backs and five future NFL players.
Illini tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh is a 2006 Ohio State graduate. As an undergraduate student, Golesh got his start in the coaching business by spending two-and-a-half years aiding the Buckeyes' defensive coaches when Tressel was the head coach.
ILLINOIS AGAINST FCS/I-AA TEAMS
The Fighting Illini are 13-0 all-time against FCS opponents (formerly I-AA). Illinois is averaging over 43 points per game against FCS foes with an average margin of victory of over 28 points per game. All but two of those wins have been by at least 21 points.
|Illinois Against FCS/I-AA Teams
|1985||Southern Illinois||W, 28-25
|1990||Southern Illinois||W, 56-21
|1998||Middle Tennessee||W, 48-20
|2002||Illinois State||W, 49-22
|2004||Florida A&M||W, 52-13
|2006||Eastern Illinois||W, 42-17
|2007||Western Illinois||W, 21-0
|2008||Eastern Illinois||W, 47-21
|2009||Illinois State||W, 45-17
|2010||Southern Illinois||W, 35-3
|2011||South Dakota State||W, 56-3
|2012||Charleston Southern||W, 44-0
|2013||Southern Illinois||W, 42-34
TOUGH SLATE AWAITS ILLINI IN 2014
Illinois faces a formidable schedule in 2014, with four opponents ranked in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 - and all four of those games coming on the road and in the first eight weeks of the season. Illinois travels to No. 25 Washington on Sept. 13 as the return game for last year's meeting at Soldier Field in Chicago, visits No. 22 Nebraska on Sept. 27 for the Huskers' Homecoming game under the lights, travels to No. 14 Wisconsin on Oct. 11 and heads to No. 5 Ohio State for a prime-time meeting with the Buckeyes on Nov. 1. Michigan and Rutgers are the only other Big Ten teams to face more than two preseason Top-25 teams on the road, as they each visit three ranked opponents.
Based on opponent winning percentage from 2013, the Fighting Illini's schedule ranks second in the Big Ten and No. 21 nationally. Illinois' foes combined for a 59.6 winning percentage (90-61) last season, with all four non-conference opponents winning at least six games. Only Rutgers' 62.6 opponent winning percentage (97-58), which ties for ninth-toughest in the nation, is stronger among Big Ten teams.
BENTLEY LOOKING TO BUILD OFF BREAKOUT SOPHOMORE SEASON
Junior cornerback V'Angelo Bentley showed his dual-threat capabilities last season and enters 2014 as a preseason candidate for the Paul Hornung Award, which goes to the most versatile player in major college football. Bentley was one of the top return men in the country in 2013, leading the Big Ten in punt return average (15.8 ypr) and becoming the first Illini ever to return a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in one season. He had a 100-yard kickoff return against Southern Illinois and a 67-yard punt return against Ohio State.
FERGUSON A DUAL THREAT
Junior running back Josh Ferguson had a breakout year on the ground in 2013, rushing for a team-high 779 yards and seven touchdowns, but he might have been more dangerous catching passes out of the backfield. The preseason Doak Walker Award candidate caught 50 passes for 535 yards, the second-most by a running back in the nation, and added four more TDs through the air last season. His 112.6 all-purpose yards per game ranked ninth in the Big Ten.
Ferguson broke Kameno Bell's Illinois record for single-season receiving yards by a running back in 2013. Ferguson's 535 receiving yards surpassed Bell's total of 503 yards from 1991. He enters 2014 in second place on Illinois' career receiving yardage list for a running back. He has 800 career receiving yards, which trails only Ty Douthard's 1,250 yards from 1993-96.
O-LINE BRIMMING WITH EXPERIENCE
Illinois boasts one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country, ranking fifth in the Big Ten and No. 23 in FBS in career O-line starts returning with 96. Michael Heitz, who is slated to start the season at left guard, is a three-year starter with 31 career starts under his belt, and left tackle Simon Cvijanovic has 26. Right guard Ted Karras has 22 career starts and center Alex Hill has 15. Sophomore center/guard Joe Spencer also has two career starts. According to Phil Steele's preseason magazine, Indiana (130), Minnesota (129), Northwestern (100) and Rutgers (99) are the only Big Ten teams to enter 2014 with more returning offensive line starts than Illinois.
KARRAS CONTINUES FAMILY'S B1G LEGACY
Junior offensive lineman Ted Karras is slated as an opening-week starter at right guard for the third-straight season. If that name seems familiar, that's because it's familial. Karras is the seventh member of his family to play football in the Big Ten, including his great-uncle, Alex, who was a four-time Pro Bowler before starting an acting career that resulted in a starring role in the 1980s sitcom "Webster." In addition, his grandfather, Ted, played at Indiana; his father, Ted Jr. - now the coach at Division II Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio - played at Northwestern; his great-uncle, Paul, played at Iowa; his great-uncle, Lou, played at Purdue; and his uncle, Tony, played at Northwestern.
PAIR OF ILLINI CHANGE POSITIONS
Two Fighting Illini players switched positions heading in 2014, as senior Earnest Thomas III moved from safety to STAR - Illinois' hybrid linebacker/safety position - and senior defensive tackle Jake Howe started working as a fullback.
» Thomas is Illinois' returning tackler, as he made 101 stops and ranked seventh in the Big Ten in tackles per game (8.4), but the position switch will allow the Illini to move him closer to the line of scrimmage and take advantage of his run-stopping strengths.
» Howe, who was recruited to play fullback before being switched to defensive tackle his freshman year, is practicing both as a fullback and defensive tackle. The 305-pound native of McHenry, Illinois, could prove a capable blocker out of the backfield or an important factor in short-yardage situations. Howe started six games at defensive tackle in 2013 and totaled 13 tackles on the season.
For the second-straight season, Illinois welcomes six junior college transfers to the roster. In 2014, WR Geronimo Allison, WR Raphael Barr, DL Joe Fotu, LEO Carroll Phillips, WR Tyrin Stone-Davis and DL Jihad Ward all will look to make an immedate impact. They'll try to follow in the footsteps of six JC transfers that made a big impact in 2013 - WR Martize Barr, DL Abe Cajuste, STAR Eric Finney, TE Dallas Hinkhouse TE Trevor Kanteman and DB Zane Petty. All but Hinkhouse and Kanteman, who both redshirted, contributed on the field last season.
In addition to the junior college transfers, three traditional transfers could see the field this season after sitting out 2013 due to NCAA rules. Starting QB Wes Lunt, who came to Illinois after starting as a true-freshman at Oklahoma State, is the most notable, but transfers DB Clayton Fejedelem (St. Xavier University) and WR Zach Grant (St. Ambrose University/Northern Illinois University) also could earn playing time.
ILLINI RETURN TO CAMP RANTOUL
Illinois spent eight days at Camp Rantoul in Rantoul, Illinois, on a portion of the former Chanute Air Force Base. The Fighting Illini were in Rantoul from Aug. 11-18, continuing a 16-year tradition that spans back to 1998 under head coach Ron Turner. The only year that Illinois did not spend a portion of training camp in Rantoul was 2001 when the grass on the practice fields died. A favorite of three Illinois head coaches for its similarities to an NFL training camp setup, Camp Rantoul has a hotel, three practice fields, a locker room, weight room, dining hall and meeting rooms all within close walking distance. The Illini are one of about a dozen FBS teams to hold at least a portion of preseason camp off-campus.
ILLINI PRESEASON HONORS
A number of Fighting Illini players earned mention on preseason award watch lists heading into 2014.
» V'Angelo Bentley, CB/KR/PR - Paul Hornung Award (versatile), CFPA Punt Returner Watch List, Third-team All-American (PR, Phil Steele)
» Josh Ferguson, RB - Doak Walker Award (RB)
» Matt LaCosse, TE - CFPA Tight End Watch List
» Mason Monheim, LB - Butkus Award (LB), Allstate AFCA Good Works Team (community service)
LINEBACKER U, IT'S NOT WHERE YOU THINK IT IS
Like many Illini teams over the years, the 2014 Illini defense will be led by the linebacking corps of senior STAR Earnest Thomas III, junior Mason Monheim, a 2014 Butkus Award candidate, and sophomore T.J. Neal Jr., a potential breakout player in 2014. Thomas is Illinois' returning tackler, as he made 101 stops last season as a safety. This year, he moves closer to the line of scrimmage to take advantage of his run-stopping strengths. Monheim has piled up 183 tackles, 12.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks in his first two seasons. He earned second-team freshman All-America honors in 2012 after becoming the first true-freshman ever to lead the Illini in tackles.
Illinois' history at the linebacker position is up there with any program in the nation. It begins with the greatest linebacker in football history, Dick Butkus, who was a two-time All-American and led the Fighting Illini to a 1964 Rose Bowl win over Washington. The Orange and Blue boast two Butkus Award winners, Dana Howard in 1994 and Kevin Hardy in 1995, and several other first-team All-Americans like Darrick Brownlow (1990), Simeon Rice (1994 & `95) and J Leman (2007), not to mention current NFL players Martez Wilson (Cowboys) and Jonathan Brown (Cardinals).
NEW LOOK FOR THE FIGHTING ILLINI
Illinois athletics completed a large-scale, 18-month brand evaluation program with Nike in 2014. The collaboration began in January 2013 and resulted in an updated brand and identity system starting in 2014-15, including logos, marks, uniforms, equipment, lettering, numerals and consistent colors for all 19 Fighting Illini sports, including football, and the Division of Intercollegiate as a whole. The rebranding was unveiled on April 16, 2014, at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Get a look at the new Fighting Illini identity here: http://www.fightingillini.com/identity.
ALL OVER THE NFL
Illinois has 29 former players in 2014 NFL training camps (as of Aug. 24), including three players from the 2013 roster - LB Jonathan Brown (Cardinals), WR Ryan Lankford (Colts) and TE Evan Wilson (Dolphins).
A total of 26 former Fighting Illini were on active NFL rosters in 2013, tied for second-most amoung Big Ten teams behind only Ohio State (31). The 26 former Illini players was tied with Iowa and ahead of Penn State (25), Wisconsin (25), Michgan (23), Nebraska (23), Purdue (18), Michigan State (15), Northwestern (7), Indiana (5) and Minnesota (4).
Sixteen Illini have been drafted since 2010, including 10 in the first three rounds (most in the Big Ten).
Despite not having a first-rounder in either of the last two years, Illinois has had five first-round draft picks since 2008, which is the second-most among Big Ten teams (Ohio State has six).
GETTING IT DONE IN THE CLASSROOM
The Illini once again excelled in the classroom in 2013-14, continuing a three-year trend under head coach Tim Beckman. Twenty-one players earned degrees in 2014 after 16 did so in 2013 and 15 in 2012. For four consecutive semesters, at least 40 football student-athletes have posted at least a 3.0 grade-point-average: 42 in fall 2012, a program-record 51 in spring 2013, 43 in fall 2013 and 41 in spring 2014. As a team, the Illini posted a 2.84 cumulative GPA in fall 2013 and a 2.90 in spring 2014, up from 2.71 and 2.87, respectively, a year ago. In addition, 21 Fighting Illini earned Academic All-Big Ten status in fall 2013, up from 18 in 2012.
ILLINI HOLD LIFT FOR LIFE FUNDRAISER
Fighting Illini players raised nearly $8,000 for acoustic neuroma, which ended the career of former Illini offensive lineman Andrew Carter, with their third annual Lift for Life fundraiser through Uplifting Athletes on June 27, 2014. Acoustic neuroma is a rare, slow-growing tumor of the nerve that connects the ear to the brain. Sophomore offensive lineman Joe Spencer serves as president of the UI chapter of Uplifting Athletes and helped organize the event, which featured the entire Fighting Illini team participating in a strongman compeitioin at Memorial Stadium. Find more on Andrew Carter's story here: http://bit.ly/CarterFeature.