Published Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 8:56 pm / Updated at 12:33 am
football
Barfknecht: Illinois surprising so far after terrible 2012

Illinois' first football season under coach Tim Beckman was a clown show.

Harsh? You bet. True? You decide after reading the following:

Ľ Beckman, after taking over a bowl team that had a quarterback entering his third year as a starter, went 2-10 overall and 0-8 in the Big Ten. Only one win came against an FBS school.

Ľ The offense was so inept that in conference play it produced only two plays longer than 30 yards. In the 32 quarters of league action, the Illini led at the end of a period once — 3-0 after the first quarter against Minnesota.

Ľ Why was the offense so bumbling? Maybe because Beckman had two offensive coordinators, one who called plays on first and second down and the other on third down.

Ľ Special teams were anything but. Illinois finished 118th nationally in punt returns and 107th in kickoff returns.

Ľ Speculation grew so intense about Beckman being fired that Athletic Director Mike Thomas had to go public with an announcement that Beckman would return for a second season. In turn, five assistants either left or were let go.

So it was no surprise that preseason prognosticators in the Big Ten marked any game this season against Illinois — such as Nebraska's Oct. 5 meeting with the Illini — as a 'W.'

Maybe, just maybe, some reconsideration is in order.

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Illinois got votes in both Top 25 polls this week after thrashing a respected Cincinnati team 45-17 to move to 2-0. An even better test awaits Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago when the Illini host No. 19 Washington.

So what's the difference in Champaign? Almost all signs point to new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit.

The only thing “new” about Cubit is his connection to Illinois. The 59-year-old has a world of college football experience, having been an offensive coordinator or head coach the previous 17 years, including a stop at Missouri.

Cubit was fired last November after his eighth season as head coach at Western Michigan, with one of his losses to Illinois. At his age and point in his career, it would have been easy for Cubit to bitterly chuck it all.

Instead, he has brought positive thinking and hope to a program in desperate need of both.

“I'm having a ball,” Cubit said. “I'm loving life right now.”

So is fifth-year quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, whose career has been resurrected by the change Cubit has brought to the Illini offense.

In two games, Scheelhaase has completed 54 of 73 passes (74 percent) for 728 yards and six touchdowns with one interception. For the entire 2012 season, the former Nebraska recruit had four touchdown passes and eight interceptions while playing through a knee injury.

Cubit has set a faster tempo on offense that involves more short passes while receivers read the defense. Scheelhaase also likes his freedom to audible.

“Coach Cubit has enough confidence in me to let me make some calls at the line of scrimmage,” he said. “I don't think he would do that if I was messing up.”

One win doesn't make for a turnaround. But Scheelhaase liked what the Cincinnati victory symbolized.

“The coolest thing is we did things we needed to do when the time called for it,” he said. “When we needed a fourth-down stop, the defense got it. When we needed a 99-yard drive, the offense did it.

“Guys are understanding not just what we're doing, but why we're doing it. We're starting to get it.”

Cubit “gets” his new role, too, in part from some advice he once got from coaching legend and mentor Lou Saban.

“He said the job of an assistant coach is to make sure the head coach still has his job,” Cubit said. “I took that to heart.”

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht

lee.barfknecht@owh.com    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.

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