Big Ten

Comfort breeding confidence as Illini prep for 2015 season

tim-beckman-0809.png

Comfort breeding confidence as Illini prep for 2015 season

CHAMPAIGN — Coming off a 6-7 season with a tough schedule and surrounded by allegations of abuse, why are the Illini feeling so comfortable?

An increased comfort level is what has Illinois excited about the 2015 season. Whether it's the more entrenched quarterback or a defense packed with veterans, experience has bred comfort, which in turn is breeding confidence in Champaign.

“I think he’s more comfortable,” head coach Tim Beckman said of quarterback Wes Lunt during Sunday’s media day. “It’s another year underneath his belt. It’s good to know that we’ve got him for two more. He’s going in there as a junior, and he feels comfortable. You can see that, you can feel it. Especially from where I stand (during practice) because I’m right behind him. All the coaches are on the sidelines, but I’m right behind him. So I can feel the difference the way our offense has responded.”

“These guys have played together. They’re comfortable with the calls that coach (Tim) Banks and coach (Mike) Phair are giving them,” Beckman said about his defense. “So we’ve been able to do a lot. The installation has been more than we’ve ever been able to do because we have maturity. I’m looking forward to this defense playing at the caliber that we believe is a winning caliber.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Return date unknown, Illini's Mike Dudek fighting through ACL recovery]

Lunt, though he’s played just eight games in an Illinois uniform, is entering his third season with the program. He sat out the 2013 season per NCAA transfer rules after arriving from Oklahoma State. He won a preseason position battle with Reilly O'Toole but missed five games last season with an injury. After being through all that and going through another spring practice and entering his second fall camp and doing it this time as the clear-cut starting QB, Lunt is admittedly feeling a lot better about things.

“He’s just so much more comfortable,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “Just like his whole demeanor. I can remember last year he told me, ‘Coach, it’s tough being a leader when you really haven’t proven yourself.’ I think everybody understands that he is the guy. He got elected as a summer captain. He’s just got a different air about him, very confident, understands exactly (what to do). The offense is not easy. It takes a lot. … And he feels real comfortable doing that now.”

“I would say all around, just my knowledge of the offense, just playing a year in the Big Ten. Experience is a big thing,” Lunt said.

But while Lunt plays the game’s most visible position and will get the most attention from fans and observers as the season progresses, that experience can be found all over. Cubit pointed to receiver Geronimo Allison, again using the word “comfortable” to describe how much better he is in his second season after transferring in from the junior-college ranks. Running back Josh Ferguson is entering his third season as a starter. The offensive line is more experienced.

[MORE BIG TEN: Minnesota AD Norwood Teague resigns amid sexual harassment reports]

And on defense, that experience level could be the key to finally being able to slow down opponents. The Illini’s defensive numbers have been downright ugly in recent seasons. But with the excuse of youth no longer applicable — as well as a handful of guys who have started for multiple seasons — this could be the year that things get better. Every starter listed on the team’s post-spring depth chart was an upperclassman.

“I think they have a tremendous amount of confidence just because they know what the expectations are. They won’t be in awe in any venue that we play in. These kids have all played,” co-defensive coordinator Banks said. “Now, they also understand you’ve got to go out and do it. Having all these guys back is great, but regardless of it, you’ve got to out and execute and you’ve got to show that you can get it done when the lights come on. We’re excited. We’re eager about the challenge. We know it’s right around the corner, and that’s what gets us going every day when we get out of bed. They’re excited.”

“We have a lot of seniors on our defense, so it’s keeping the energy going every day in practice and teaching the younger guys and building off of each other, knowing what success we had last year and where we failed last year,” senior cornerback V’Angelo Bentley said. “It’s going to make us a better defense and ultimately a better team.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Illini women's hoops investigation finds no support for racial hostility]

There are plenty of question marks surrounding this team. Even before offseason allegations from a former player that he is an abusive bully, Beckman hasn’t earned a lot of confidence from Illini fans, despite the fact that he’s increased the team’s win total in each of the past two seasons. A tough schedule featuring a road trip to North Carolina and Big Ten bouts with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska in Champaign and Penn State and Minnesota on the road have few expecting that winning trend to continue.

But as far as the Illini are concerned, there are several reasons to be excited about this season. Chief among them is the fact that everyone is feeling a whole lot more comfortable.

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

1121_baker_mayfield.jpg
USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?