Preview No. 8: Illinois Fighting Illini

This is the eighth in a series of articles previewing Ohio State’s 12 opponents for the 2014 season.

In prime time, Ohio State hosts Illinois at Ohio Stadium in Columbus on Nov. 1. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised on either ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPNU, ESPNews, or ESPN8 “The Ocho.”

Last Season:

Illinois ended the 2013 campaign with a 4-8 overall mark and finished fifth in the Leaders Division of the Big Ten Conference at 1-7. The four wins were against Southern Illinois (42-34), Cincinnati (45-17), Miami-Ohio (50-14), and Purdue (20-16). The eight losses were to Washington (34-24), Nebraska (39-19), Wisconsin (56-32), Michigan State (42-3), Penn State (24-17, OT), Indiana (52-35), Ohio State (60-35), and Northwestern (37-34).

History & Coaches

The winningest coach in Illinois football history is Robert Zuppke, who guided the Fighting Illini to four national titles (1914, 1919, 1923, 1927) and seven Big Ten championships (1914, 1915, 1918, 1919, 1923, 1927, 1928) from 1913-1941 and had a 131-81-13 mark in a span of 29 years.

Zuppke, who was born in Berlin, Germany, was credited for inventing the huddle and the flea flicker, and was an innovator when it came to pocket and screen passing. He had great success for nearly two decades as Zuppke’s record during the first 17 seasons was 77-27-8. But like many coaches at Illinois before and after him, that success was not sustainable over the long haul. From 1930 until he left the program in 1941, Zuppke’s Illini were just 54-54-5 over a span of 12 years with seven losing seasons. Only once during that time did Illinois win more than five games, and that came in 1934 when the Fighting Illini were 7-1, losing only to Wisconsin, but never played the eventual Big Ten champion, Minnesota.

Zuppke left football after the 1941 season to devote his time to writing and his artwork. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.

The second winningest coach in school history was the one that followed Zuppke. Ray Eliot, known to Illinois football fans as “Mr. Illini,” was born Raymond Eliot Nusspickel in Brighton, Mass. Eliot graduated from the University of Illinois in 1932 after lettering once in baseball and three times in football as a tackle. In 1937, Eliot returned to his alma mater as line coach under Zuppke before replacing him in 1942. In 17 seasons, Eliot was 83-73-11 in his 18 seasons leading the Illini with one national title (1951) and three Big Ten championships (1946, 1951, 1953).

That national championship team of 1951 is a curious one. That season, Illinois finished 9-0-1 with the only blemish being a 0-0 tie at Ohio State and was ranked fourth in the Associated Press poll, third in the UPI Coaches’ Poll at the end of the regular season. As champions of the Big Ten, the Illini were invited to Pasadena to play in the 1952 Rose Bowl.

At the conclusion of the 1951 regular season, Tennessee topped both the AP and Coaches polls and are generally regarded as that year’s national champions. But the Volunteers lost to No. 3 Maryland, 24-7, in the 1952 Sugar Bowl, while out in California, Illinois pounded No. 7 Stanford, 40-7. Though No. 2 Michigan State was a member of the Big Ten academically, the Spartans were not athletic members of the conference until 1953 and did not play in a bowl game that season, even with Clarence “Biggie” Munn’s team was undefeated at 9-0. With that, both Illinois and Michigan State also claim national championships for that season, as the Illini were credited by the Boand System, while the Spartans were lauded by Billingsley, Helms, and Poling.

In the next eight seasons, Eliot was just 32-35-5 and share one Big ten title in 1953, though Michigan State was elected to go to the Rose Bowl due to a higher ranking.

After the 1959 season, Eliot stepped down as head coach, but continue to work in the Illinois athletic department until 1980.

In 1960, former Michigan quarterback Pete Elliott succeeded Ray Eliot (no relation, obviously) at Illinois and was at the school until 1966. With the Illini, his record was 31–34–1, earning a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl victory over Washington during the 1963 season. A few months after the end of the 1966 season, he was forced to resign in the wake of a slush fund scandal in the athletic program.

Over the course of the next 13 years, three different head coaches – Jim Valek, Bob Blackman, and Gary Moeller – went a combined 43-88-4.

When Mike White took over in 1980, he inherited a team that had won just six games in the three prior seasons. Five of White’s eight Illinois teams posted winning records. The 1982 squad went 7-5 and played in the Liberty Bowl against Alabama in the legendary Bear Bryant’s final game as Crimson Tide head coach. It was also Illinois’ first bowl game appearance since the 1964 Rose Bowl. The following year in 1983, White led the Illini to a Big Ten title, but lost to UCLA, 45-9, in the Rosel Bowl to finish 10-2. After going 13-11-1 in 1984 and 1985, respectfully, Illinois was just 4-7 in 1986 and 3-7-1 in 1987 before White was canned.

John Mackovic became Illinois’ 19th head football coach on February 3, 1988. Before accepting the job in Champaign, Mackovic was the head coach of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs from 1983-1986. In just four seasons at Illinois, Mackovic was 30-16-1 until he resigned just before the 1991 John Hancock Bowl to become head coach at Texas.

From 1997-2011, Illinois had three more head coaches – Lou Tepper, Ron Turner and Ron Zook – who combined for 94 wins, 139 losses and two ties with one Big ten title and seven bowl appearances (two BCS) in 20 seasons.

After replacing Zook who was fired after the 2011 campaign, Tim Beckman enters his third season at Illinois in 2014, trying to keep the program’s momentum going forward after doubling the win total between years one and two. He’s 6-18 overall.

Offense:

The departure of four-year starting quarterback and all-time Illini total offense leader Nathan Scheelhaase led to one of the biggest storylines during the 2014 offseason – who will be the starting QB come Aug. 30?

Between a three-man competition in preseason camp between senior Reilly O’Toole, sophomore Aaron Bailey and sophomore Wes Lunt, a transfer from Oklahoma State, Lunt was named the starter by Beckman earlier this week. During his freshman and only season in Stillwater, Lunt completed 81-of-131 passing attempts for 1,108 yards with six touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Junior running back Josh Ferguson had a breakout year on the ground, 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.

Another bonus is that four of five starters on the offensive line return with senior LT Simon Cvijanovic, senior LG Michael Heitz, senior C Alex Hill and junior RG Ted Karras.

If there’s one problem offensively for the Illini it’s at the wide receiver position. Senior wideout Martize Barr caught 26 passes for 246 yards and a touchdown last season. Only one other, junior Justin Hardee, has more than 10 receptions.

Defense:

Illinois returns loads of experience on defense with eight starters back, including all five defensive backs with junior cornerback V’Angelo Bentley, junior Eaton Spence, senior STAR Earnest Thomas, sophomore free safety Taylor Barton, and senior strong safety Zane Petty. Thomas is Illinois’ top returning tackler after recording 101 stops in 2013.

Two of three starting linebackers are back with junior WLB Mason Monheim and junior OLB Mike Svetina. Monheim will look to follow up on two solid seasons with an even bigger 2014. A preseason Butkus Award candidate, 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 leading Illinois with 86 tackles on the season, the most among all Big Ten freshmen by a wide margin, and followed that with 97 tackles as a sophomore.

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, a 100-yard kickoff return against Southern Illinois and a 67-yard punt return against Ohio State. As a DB, Bentley had 22 tackles, two tackles for loss and an interception.

Only one starter is back on the defensive line with senior tackle Austin Teitsma, who had 53 stops and 5.5 tackles for loss.