Aug. 27, 2012
GAME 1: WESTERN MICHIGAN (0-0) at ILLINOIS (0-0)
Sept. 1, 2012 // 11:01 am CDT // ESPNU
Champaign, Ill. // Memorial Stadium (60,670)
Complete Illinois Game Notes | Complete WMU Game Notes | Big Ten Notes
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The Illinois/Western Michigan game will be televised on ESPNU with an air time of 11 a.m. CT. Anish Shroff (play-by-play) and Dan Hawkins (color analyst) will call the action with Steve Reintjes producing and Mark Jones directing. The game also will be streamed live at ESPN3.com.
The 51-station Illini Sports Network will carry the radio broadcast with the pregame show beginning at 10:30 a.m. CDT. Calling the action will be Brian Barnhart (play-by-play), Kurt Kittner (analysis) and Steve Kelly (pregame, halftime and postgame). The broadcast also can be heard on SIRIUS (113) and XM (196) satellite radio.
Tickets are available for Saturday's game against Western Michigan for just $25 at the UI Athletic Ticket Office at Assembly Hall, by calling 1-866-ILLINI-1 or online at fightingillini.com.
WESTERN MICHIGAN GAME PROMOTIONS | Promotions Website
Illini Walk - 8:30 am starting at First and Kirby
Illini Street Fest - 8:30-11 am (Live music by Captain Rat and the Blind Rivets)
International Student Day
Kids Club Day (Free tickets for Illini Kids Club members. Additional tickets $10 each)
A new head coach, Tim Beckman, takes over in 2012 for the Fighting Illini, the 123rd year in the program's history.
Illinois finished the 2011 season on high note, defeating UCLA, 20-14, in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl to finish with a record of 7-6.
The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl win over UCLA, combined with the 38-14 win over Baylor in the 2010 Texas Bowl, gave Illinois bowl victories in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.
Illinois opens the 2012 season looking to reach a bowl game for the third consecutive season, something that hasn't been done since making five straight bowl appearances from 1988-92.
The Illini have an all-time record of 75-42-5 in season-openers and are 52-27-4 when opening the season at home. The Illini have won their last six season-openers at Memorial Stadium dating back to 1997.
Illinois is 84-33-5 all-time in home-openers and has won its last 14, including last year's 33-15 win over Arkansas State on Sept. 3.
Illinois junior linebacker Jonathan Brown, senior defensive end Michael Buchanan and senior cornerback Terry Hawthorne all return in 2012 after earning All-Big Ten honors a season ago. Brown was a second-team selection by the media and honorable mention by the coaches, while Buchanan was a second-team pick by both sets of voters. Hawthorne was an honorable mention selection by both panels last season.
Illinois returns seven starters on the offensive side of the ball -- OL Michael Heitz, OL Hugh Thornton, OL Graham Pocic, WR Darius Millines, WR Spencer Harris, QB Nathan Scheelhaase and the TE tandem of Evan Wilson and Jon Davis.
The defense also returns seven starters -- DE Michael Buchanan, DT Akeem Spence, DT Glenn Foster, LB Jonathan Brown, CB Terry Hawthorne and safeties Supo Sanni and Steve Hull.
The Illini return both punters from 2011, traditional punter Justin DuVernois and rugby-style punter Ryan Lankford, as well as long-snapper Zak Pedersen.
Illinois returns five of its top seven tacklers from a defense that ranked seventh nationally in 2011. Brown led the way last season with 108 stops while also ranking sixth in the Big Ten in tackles per game (9.0). Spence was fourth on the team with 69 stops, Buchanan fifth with 64, Hawthorne sixth with 60 and Hull seventh with 58 tackles.
Offensively, 100 percent of the Illini's passing production returns in 2012. However, less than 50 percent of the team's receiving and rushing production returns with the loss of wide receiver A.J. Jenkins and running backs Jason Ford and Troy Pollard to graduation.
THE BECKMAN ERA BEGINS
Tim Beckman takes over in 2012 as the 23rd head football coach at the University of Illinois. Beckman came to Illinois after three years as head coach at Toledo, where he led the Rockets to two bowl appearances and a Mid-American Conference West Division co-championship. Beckman took over for Ron Zook, who was released following the 2011 regular season after seven seasons at Illinois.
Beckman assembled a diverse and dynamic staff for 2012. It is composed of Tim Banks (defensive coordinator/safeties), Billy Gonzales (co-offensive coordinator/wide receivers), Chris Beatty (co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks), Luke Butkus (offensive line), Steve Clinkscale (cornerbacks), Keith Gilmore (defensive line), Alex Golesh (tight ends/specialists/recruiting coordinator), Tim Salem (running backs/special teams coordinator) and Mike Ward (linebackers).
Over the past several years, Illinois has faced one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the nation. This year is no exception, as the Illini face three FBS teams that made bowls last season in Western Michigan (Little Caesars Bowl), Arizona State (Las Vegas Bowl) and Louisiana Tech (Poinsettia Bowl).
Over the last decade, Illinois has faced the toughest non-conference schedule in the Big Ten. Since 2002, Illinois' non-conference foes have a 56.1 winning percentage. The next closest is Minnesota at 52.2 percent, followed by Ohio State (51.6) and Michigan (50.4).
Every FBS non-conference opponent that Illinois has faced in the last three years has made a bowl game that season. The Illini played Arkansas State, Arizona State and Western Michigan in 2011; Missouri, Northern Illinois and Fresno State in 2010; and Missouri, Cincinnati and Fresno State in 2009.
Illinois had six games decided by one score in 2011, going 4-2 in those games. The Illini had three consecutive three-point wins against Arizona State, Western Michigan and Northwestern early in the season and also had a six-point win over UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, along with two losses by one score, losing at Purdue by seven and at Penn State by three.
With only 64 penalties for 549 yards in 2011, the Illini ranked 30th nationally in fewest penalties per game (4.9) and 27th nationally in fewest penalty yards per game (42.2). The Illini were penalty-free against Arkansas State, the first time in 18 years that the Illini played a game without being flagged.
After having a school-record eight home games - including five straight to start the season - in 2011, the Illini will have seven games inside the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium in 2012. The Illini start the season with four of their first five games at home, beginning with the season-opener against Western Michigan on Sept. 1. The Illini have an all-time record of 252-212-14 at Memorial Stadium entering the 2012 season.
WESTERN MICHIGAN SERIES NOTES
Illinois leads the all-time series with Western Michigan 3-1 and has won all three previous meetings in Champaign: 60-14 in 1947, 30-27 in 2004 and 23-20 in 2011. The Broncos won the only meeting in the state of Michigan in 2008, 23-17, in a game played at Ford Field in Detroit.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman has a 2-1 record against WMU as a head coach, with all three meetings coming while Beckman was at Toledo. The Rockets defeated the Broncos 66-63 in 2011 and 37-24 in 2010, while Beckman's lone loss to WMU came in 2009, 58-26.
In the 2011 game, several current Illini made an impact.
- RB Donovonn Young had his first 100-yard game, rushing for 100 yards on 12 carries (8.3 ypc) and scoring one touchdown.
- DB Terry Hawthorne had a team-best nine tackles, three PBUs and one interception.
- TE Eddie Viliunas recorded his first career catch, a 39-yard reception.
- QB Nathan Scheelhaase completed 14-of-20 passes for 133 yards and one touchdown.
- TE Evan Wilson caught three passes for 33 yards and a touchdown.
- DE Michael Buchanan had five tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 1.0 sack and three QB hurries.
ILLINI PRESEASON HONORS
A number of Fighting Illini players earned mention on award watch lists and preseason All-America and All-Big Ten teams. Below is a list of the honors that Illinois players earned heading into 2012:
- LB Jonathan Brown - Bednarik Award watch list, Butkus Award watch list, Lombardi Award watch list, Lott Trophy watch list, Nagurski Trophy watch list, fourth-team All-America and first-team All-Big Ten (Phil Steele).
- DE Michael Buchanan - Bednarik Award watch list, Hendricks Award watch list, Lombardi Award watch list, Nagurski Award watch list, second-team All-Big Ten (Phil Steele).
- DB Tommy Davis - Hornung Award watch list.
- CB Terry Hawthorne - Hornung Award watch list, Third-team All-Big Ten (Phil Steele).
- C Graham Pocic - Outland Trophy watch list, Rimington Trophy watch list, second-team All-Big Ten (Phil Steele).
- QB Nathan Scheelhaase - Davey O'Brien Award watch list, fourth-team All-Big Ten (Phil Steele)
- DT Akeem Spence - Lombardi Award watch list, Outland Trophy watch list, second-team All-Big Ten (Phil Steele)
- OL Hugh Thornton - Fourth-team All-Big Ten (Phil Steele).
QB Nathan Scheelhaase made big improvements in 2011, raising his completion percentage from 58.7 to 63.2 from his freshman to sophomore seasons. He also topped his 2010 totals in passing yardage (1,825 to 2,110), passing efficiency (132.0 to 133.4) and rushing touchdowns (five to six).
Scheelhaase and Brooks Bollinger (Wisconsin) are the only two QBs in Big Ten history to start and lead their teams to bowl victories during both their freshman and sophomore seasons.
After tossing four touchdowns and seven interceptions in the first six starts of his career, Scheelhaase has thrown 26 touchdowns and only nine interceptions since the midpoint of 2010.
Scheelhaase had three TD passes of 65-plus yards in 2011, all to WR A.J. Jenkins, which equaled Juice Williams' single-season school-record total from 2006.
In Illinois' 14 wins since the beginning of the 2010 season, Scheelhaase completed 188-of-280 passes (67.1 percent) for 2,427 yards, 21 TDs and five INTs for a 161.1 efficiency rating. He also has rushed for 959 yards on 203 carries (4.7 ypc) and six TDs in those 14 games. For comparison, Scheelhaase is 151-of-275 (54.9 percent) for 1,510 yards, nine TDs and 11 INTs for a 103.8 rating in Illinois' 12 losses during that span.
Sophomore tight end Jon Davis emerged during the second half of his freshman season in 2011, hauling in 19 of his 22 receptions in the last seven games, including a career-high five catches against Wisconsin, to earn third-team freshman All-America and first-team freshman All-Big Ten honors.
After sitting out most of 2011 with a hamstring injury and being granted a medical hardship waiver, redshirt-freshman running back Josh Ferguson has emerged as one of the featured ball carriers for the 2012 Illini offense. Ferguson, sophomore Donovonn Young (451 yards, 6 TD, 5.2 YPC in 2011) and true-freshman Dami Ayoola form a young but explosive backfield for co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales.
While the 2012 offensive line may not be set heading into the Sept. 1 opener, there's no doubt that it will be anchored by veterans Graham Pocic (26 career starts) and Hugh Thornton (25 career starts). Both Pocic and Thornton are versatile vets who could play at several different positions along the line as the year goes on.
The Illinois defense was dominant in 2011. The Illini finished the season ranked third nationally in pass defense (162.3 ypg), fourth in tackles for loss (7.9 per game), sixth in sacks (3.2 per game), seventh in total defense (286.2 ypg) and 15th in scoring defense (19.6 ppg).
While the defensive line took a big hit with the early departure of consensus All-American Whitney Mercilus to the NFL, senior DE Michael Buchanan looks like the most likely candidate to step up in 2012. Buchanan ranked fourth in the Big Ten in sacks (7.5) and ninth in TFLs (13.5) in 2011, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors for his performance. Junior DT Akeem Spence (69 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks in 2011) is another breakout candidate on the defensive line.
Junior LB Jonathan Brown had a breakout season in 2011, leading the Big Ten in tackles for loss (14.5) and ranking second in tackles (11.9 per game) in conference games. For the season, he led the Illini with 108 tackles, was sixth nationally and second in the Big Ten in TFLs per game (1.63).
Brown was especially effective during the second half of the 2011 season, totaling 78 tackles, 13.5 TFLs, 4.0 sacks, two PBUs, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and three hurries in the final seven games of 2011. He had at least nine tackles in every Big Ten game he played in and went for double-digits in six of seven conference games.
Brown had a career-high 17 tackles, including 2.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks, against Ohio State on Oct. 15, marking the most tackles by an Illini in a game since Brit Miller tallied 17 on Nov. 8, 2008.
Senior CB Terry Hawthorne turned the tide of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with his 39-yard interception return for TD late in the third quarter that gave Illinois a 10-7 lead. It was the second pick-six of Hawthorne's career (Minnesota, 2009). In the home finale vs. Wisconsin on Nov. 19, Hawthorne had a career-high 15 tackles and forced a fumble. For the season, Hawthorne led the team in interceptions (3) and passes defended (11).
Joining Hawthorne in an experience defensive backfield are senior cornerback Justin Green (18 career starts, 91 career tackles, seven career PBUs), junior safety Steve Hull (12 career starts, 75 career tackles, three career PBUs, one career TFL and one career INT) and senior safety Supo Sanni (11 career starts, 69 career tackles, six career PBUs and one career INT).
THE SPECIAL TEAMS
The 2012 Illini will have the tall task of replacing the most accurate kicker in school history. Derek Dimke, who is currently in training camp with the Detroit Lions, finished his UI career as the program's all-time leader in field goal accuracy (39-of-46, .848) and extra point accuracy (89-of-89, 1.000).
Sophomore Nick Immekus and redshirt-freshman Taylor Zalewski both have been impressive during training camp while competing to become Dimke's heir apparent, but neither has attempted a kick in a real game yet.
Sophomore Justin DuVernois served as primary punter in 2011, kicking 53 times for a 38.3-yard average on the season, including a long of 66 and 17 inside the 20. He was one of only 10 true-freshman starting punters in the nation in 2011.
Junior WR Ryan Lankford also saw some time at punter in 2011 and could again in 2012. A rugby-style punter, Lankford kicked 19 times for an average of 39.4 yards, including seven 50+ yarders with a long of 59. He had a career game in the Kraft Bowl, averaging 46.0 yards on five punts, including two over 50 and two inside the 20. Lankford also returned 19 punts in 2011, becoming the first Illinois player since Bob Bess in 1969 to both punt and return a punt in the same season.
Junior QB Miles Osei is expected to start the season as the primary holder for field goals and extra points. Junior TE Tim Russell handled holding duties for 2011, giving the Illini an experienced back-up at the position.
Senior Zak Pedersen is in his third year handling long snapping duties for the Fighting Illini. He earned a scholarship prior to the 2011 season after serving three years as a walk-on.