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Illini improving but still seeking first Big Ten win

Wisconsv Illinois

Wisconsin v Illinois

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Updated: October 22, 2013 11:47PM



Tim Beckman said this the ­other day: “Why not be 9-3?”

Yes, he was talking about the current season. We don’t like to use the word “crazy” loosely, but holy missed tackles, Batman — 9-3, really? Maybe the Illini (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten) should win one conference game first, something that hasn’t happened since the pre-Beckman days in Champaign.

Offense

The remarkable improvement over 2012, when the Illini ranked next-to-last in the country in yardage gained, has injected life into the program. Total offense: 446.2 yards per game (48th), up from 296.7. Scoring: 35.3 (35th), up from 16.7.

But the line isn’t physical enough to win battles regularly, and the inside run game has stagnated.

Grade: B-.

Defense

The Illini can’t stop the run or the pass, are tied for the fewest total sacks (five) in the country, are next-to-last in turnovers created (five) and can’t get off the field on third down. At least a lot of young guys are getting reps.

Grade: D-.

Special teams

V’Angelo Bentley has been a breakout performer in the return games. Kicker Taylor Zalewski and punter Justin DuVernois have struggled.

Grade: C+.

Coaching

Cubit was one of the best coordinator hires of the offseason in college football. Unfortunately, Beckman and second-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks have no progress to show for their efforts on the other side of the ball. Beckman has devoted himself to improving the collective mind-set and overall culture within the program, and that counts for something.

Grade: C+.

Offensive MVP

Fifth-year senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has bounced back in a big way from an awful 2012, and he’s playing with the weight of the world off his shoulders.

Defensive MVP

It’s Jonathan Brown or bust against the run. The senior inside linebacker might be the only reliable tackler on the defense.

Prediction

Preseason: 4-8; updated: 4-8.

The first six games have gone as we predicted in the season preview, from a win/loss standpoint.

As the defense looks worse and worse, it gets harder to paint a rosier picture. Guess we’ll ride our original pick straight off the cliff.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg



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