Early Preview: Illinois

UCLA faces Illinois in its home opener September 13th. Here's an early look at how the Illini are making up for their personnel losses from last season and how they fared in spring ball. They do have a good quarterback to lead them...

I can't tell you how excited I am for this game. Why, I can't forget the epic, back-and-forth, lead-change-every....

...hour bore-fest these two teams foisted upon us in the 1991 Sun Bowl.

All in all, it was a 6-3 UCLA win, and damnit, that's all that matters.

This year, though, should be drastically different.

Because the Fighting Illnesses have the makings of a fine offensive team.

But let me back-up a minute and provide some background…

Illinois' O finished 9th in the nation last year in total offense: they averaged 164 yards on the ground, and 282 through the air, for a total average of 446. Good balance, I'm impressed…

They averaged about 29 points a game, with a high of 59 (Arkansas State) and a low of 7 (Penn State). Notably, they took eventual national champion Ohio State to OT, losing 23-16.

However, the Illini have suffered serious losses to graduation:

 Their key RB, Antoineo Harris, ran for 1,330 yards last year, a single-season record at Illinois, and averaged 110.8 ypg. Harris signed a free agent contract with San Diego.

Their two top receivers, Brandon Lloyd and Walter Young, are also off to the pros, Lloyd to the Niners (4th round, 127th overall) and Young to the Panthers (7th round). Two more WRs, Greg Lewis and Aaron Moorehead, signed free agent contracts. Together, these four caught 191 passes for 2,769 yards, and 21 of the 26 TD receptions.

Uhmmmm, UCLA only completed 204 passes all year, for 2,985 yards…

Dave Diehl, a two-year starter at OG/OT, went in the 5th round to the 'Gints. On top of that, an additional All-Big Ten OL graduated.

(BTW, how does a team that sends 6 guys to pro camps finish 5-7 just one year after winning the Big Ten?)

So if the Illini lost their entire receiving corps, their star running back, and two starting All-Big Ten OL, what's left?

The QB Who Emerged Out of the Chaos of a 1-5 Start: Jon Beutjer. The former Illinois state Player of the Year by USA Today and Gatorade originally matriculated to Iowa, where he completed 77-of-125 passes for 841 yards and six touchdowns in 2000.

But he transferred to the hometown school, sat out 2001, and caught fire at the end of last year.

In his seven starts, Beutjer averaged better than 300 yards a game passing while connect-ing on 21 touchdown passes. His completion percentage in those starts was an impressive 62%. At 6-5 and 211, he has prototypical size. Footage of him shows that he's very comfortable moving the pocket beyond the tackles, and has a strong, accurate arm to go with good decision making-he only threw 11 INTs out of 327 passes, although he had a few disastrous picks run back for big yardage. (By the way, Beutjer split time for most of the year with Dustin Ward, who started five games, played in seven, threw 126 passes and completed 52%--so Illinois has an experienced back-up to boot, and HC Ron Turner isn't afraid to use the hook. He did so a few times last year. Which kind of messed up the Illini…but that's life with two #1 QBs…)

It is tough to tell who will be the best QB UCLA faces next year: Beutjer, Andrew Walters of ASU or Cody Pickett of UW. But don't be completely surprised if it is Beutjer.

For Beutjer to put up huge numbers, he'll need three puzzle pieces to materialize and interlock: an OL, a running game, and WRs.

The Illini do return two three-year starters in SR LT Sean Bubin and JR RG Bucky Babcock, who will move to RT in 2003. JR Duke Preston returns for his second season as the starter at center. Babcock is considered by UI fans as their best OL.

So HC Ron Turner needs two new starters at guard. Bryan Koch firmed up the starting job on the left side during spring ball en route to Most Improved Offensive Player honors. Right guard is still contested. It is interesting to note that Illinois signed five freshmen linemen including Parade All-American Martin O'Donnell, who was named the top offensive lineman in the country (6-5, 290, 4.0+ GPA).

Luckily, right guard will line up opposite Bruins such as Rod Leisle, Ryan Boschetti, and CJ Niusulu, so perhaps this will be a match-up UCLA can exploit.

The question marks at both wide receiver positions were answered in the spring by JR Ade Adeyemo (6-0, 180) and SO Kendrick Jones (6-1, 195). They will enter fall as the starters after strong springs.

But Illini fans are very excited about the incoming WR talent: Lonnie Hurst (6-3, 192) from Univ. of Detroit Jesuit HS was a big catch. Hurst was considered one of the top two wide receiver recruits in the Midwest by Prep Star Magazine and the 20th best receiver in the country by Rivals.com.

The real excitement, though, is about Kelvin Hayden (6-0, 198) from Joliet JC. A HS legend, KHay-Hey! went the JC route due to grades but did sign with IL out of Hubbard High School (Chicago). He was the two-time City League Track Champion in the 55 and 200-meter dashes indoors and the 100 and 200-meter dashes outdoors. Last year, he was the NJCAA National Offensive Player of the Year, racking up 1,297 yards and 13 TDs as a sophomore. During his junior college career, he caught 114 passes for 1,839 yards and 17 scores, an average of 16.2 yards per catch. He was named MVP of the 2002 Junior College National Championship Game, and was the first wide receiver to ever win NJCAA Player of the Year honors.

Gulp.

Okay, QB…check. OL….check. WR….check. RB?

Two guys stood out during spring. The first is Ibrahim Halsey, who's nickname is E.B. because his favorite player is, you guessed it….Barry Sanders. A 5-11, 185 lb former Gatorade Player of the Year for New Jersey, fans love him because he hits the hole hard, breaks tackles, and combines power with speed, agility and vision. He finished with 77 yards on 11 carries for one TD in the spring game.

The other guy is Morris Virgil. Virgil is more of a power back, although he's "only" 5-11, 195 and runs the 100 m in 10.79. Oh yeah, the Illini have the #2 FB in the nation in Carey Davis, according to TSN.

HC Ron Turner is widely respected as an offensive mastermind and QB guru. His proteges include Kurt Kittner, Jeff Garcia, Erik Kramer, Jim Harbaugh, Steve Stenstrom, Sean Salisbury, Rodney Peete, and Dave Kreig. Yes, Turner served a one-year sentence at USC for the 1987 season where he endeavored to get Larry Smith eventually fired. Way to go, Ron. He also was the OC for da Bears football presented by Bank One for four years ('93-'96).

Bottom line, Turner runs a balanced, productive offense. The Bruin D will be challenged again after facing the physical running game of Colorado in game one. And in case you were hoping that Illinoise might be rusty-UCLA is their third game of the season.

So…how did such a talented offensive unit in 2002 lead to a 5-7 record in a conference noted for thick-ankled plodders, not to mention inflexible and slow male football players? Is it the D? Is it the D? Money, it's gotta be the D! (cough*QBindecision*cough)…

That's right, Mars. Check it, a'ight: The D allowed 423 yds/game last year, an astonishing 190 on the ground. They only had 8 INTs on the year. They allowed a 56% completion rate on passes and a 39% conversion rate on 3rd down. Yikes.

Early in the year, Mizzou dropped 33 pts and 285 rushing yards on them, San Jose St. 38 pts and 408 passing yds, and Michigan 45 pts and 415 total yards.

But at the end of the year, they held Penn St. to 18 pts (although they allowed 315 rushing yards), Wisconsin to 20 pts (297 total yards) and eventual National Champion Ohio State (sans Clarett but with Maurice Hall and Lydell Ross) to 23 pts (16 in regulation) and only 321 total yards.

So where are they heading into 2003?

The Illini return three of four DL starters next year (half empty or half full?) Their DEs appear to be strong, with 6-4, 245-lb. Derrick Strong their best player. He had 54 total tackles, 18 more than the Bruins' most profilic DL last year. (Trivia aside: Can you guess the Bruins' top three DL by total tackles?) Mike O'Brien is a speed rusher off the edge at the other DE spot who recorded 51 total tackles. He's 6-6, 225.

The DTs have size and talent in Jeff Ruffin (6-4 and 295), but don't appear to be very deep: two reserves had season-ending leg/knee injuries. Aaron Hodges, 6-3 and 285, switched over to DT from OG late last year to compensate and seemed to spark the D. He's entrenched at DT now, and he may have provided the stability up front the Illini are looking for in 2003. However, SR DT Charles Gilstrap was named the Defensive Most Improved Player of spring ball and is pushing Hodges for PT.

At LB, the headliner is former Bruin recruit and returning starter at MLB Matt Sinclair. He was third on the team with 56 tackles last year. Antonio Mason came on strong at the end of the year and looks to be a dangerous player at one outside LB spot. At the other, a three-dog race is brewing. Look out for RS FR Cyrus Garrett-huge prep rep, with great size/speed ratio (6-3 and 230).

In the secondary, the leader is Marc Jackson at SS (67 tackles last year, 2nd on team). At 6-1 and 205, he seems to be the player who creeps into the box to offer run support. TE patterns, anyone? Travis Williams was the starter at FS for the last five games of the year as a true FR. He's only 6-1 and 185 and also a return specialist, bringing back a KO 90 yards vs. Purdue. He seems to play the role of a ball hawk. WR/S Eric "Soft And" McGoey is such a good athlete at 6-3 and 210 that the staff is working him on both sides of the ball.

One CB is solid for the Illini: Christian Morton was a starter and All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2001 and has 17 starts to his credit. But the other CB spot is wide open. RS FR Darnell Ray and Sharriff Gillon look to be the guys.

The spring game was a balanced affair that saw the O score four times and the D force four turnovers, one for a long return of a tipped pass. The O seemed able to move the ball with sustained drives, yet the D made the O turn it over. Buetjer didn't disappoint; JB was hot in the Illini spring game, going 14 of 19 for 106 yards, with one TD and one INT.

For the Bruins to beat the Illini at the Rose Bowl, they will first have to suffocate the Illinois passing game; yards after catch must be kept to a minimum, because Beutjer, running Turner's O, will probably complete over 50% of his passes. The Illinois D is susceptible to drives if the opposing O doesn't beat itself with turnovers (the Illini lost the time of possession battle last year by about 3 minutes on average). Unfortunately, the Bruins fumbled 31 times last year, so the tendency to self-destruct must be shelved. The thinness at DT and the newbies at CB will probably be areas of opportunity for Karl Dorrell and Steve Axman to exploit, with occasional attempts to burn the safeties deep using play action.

The bottom line is that this is going to be a very competitive game. The Bruins' D will have its hands full, especially if the O is still getting untracked in game two of the season. With Turner's offensive scheme and playcalling, this could be one of the most entertaining games of the season from a pure FB perspective.


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