The wait is over, because Illini football is back this weekend! The Illini will play their first game of the Tim Beckman era on Saturday, Sept. 1 at 11am versus Western Michigan. Win or lose this weekend, I think it’s fair to say that Illini fans should probably get used to this time slot.
For the third year in a row, I’ve got season tickets to Illini football, but this is the first of many games I will not be attending due to someone having the gall to get married during football season. I got married in June for a reason people: no Illini football or basketball to speak of.
Anyway, even though this is the second year that Illinois hasn’t had to face Missouri in the season opener, the sting of those four years in a row of season-opening losses is still fresh enough for me to thank the stars that the Tigers aren’t on the schedule on Saturday (or at all this season).
Instead, Illinois will host the Western Michigan Broncos from the MAC Conference. I’m not saying this game is going to be easy by any means, but it’s not a bad choice for the first game of the year. Coach Beckman came from Toledo – another MAC team – so he is familiar with how the team plays. Also, it’s a good team, but maybe not a great team. A win is certainly possible (and expected), but a loss wouldn’t be horribly embarrassing.
Confidence and anticipation will be high, and the Illini have the momentum from winning their second Bowl in a row last year. I do love to point out that going into this season, the Illini are the only B1G team that can brag about winning two Bowls in the past two years. The guys are also getting a fresh start with Beckman. Saturday’s game will give Beckman a chance to see his guys in action, and it will set the tone for the season as a whole.
With 16 returning starters from last year’s Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl-winning team, the talent is there. What we’re worried about is depth, a weakness that is more easily identified once we actually start to play. We’ll get to see Beckman’s new offense, and see if the defense is as strong as it was last year.
The Illini have an all-time record of 75-42-5 in season-openers and luckily we’re starting out at home because the guys are 52-27-4 when opening the season at Memorial Stadium. In fact, the Illini have won their last six season openers at Memorial Stadium dating back to 1997 (if you’re confused as to how that can be with those four Missouri losses stuck in there, it’s because that game was always in St. Louis).
You’re going to want to look out for junior linebacker Jonathan Brown, senior defensive end Michael Buchanan and senior cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who all return this year after earning All-Big Ten honors a season ago. It’s a safe bet that Nathan Scheelhaasse will be our QB in the game, but the question might remain who he’s going to be passing to, though Darius Millines and Spencer Harris are the most likely candidates.
Joining Buchanan and Hawthorne are five more returning starters: DT Akeem Spence, DT Glenn Foster, LB Jonathan Brown and safeties Supo Sanni and Steve Hull. And both punters from 2011 are also coming back: traditional punter Justin DuVernois and rugby-style punter Ryan Lankford, as well as long-snapper Zak Pedersen. Hull and Sanni may not make an appearance on the field this weekend, but they’ll be the veterans on the bench supporting the team either way.
Illinois leads the all-time series with Western Michigan 3-1, and has won all three previous meetings in Champaign in 1947, 2004 and 2011. It is tough to erase the memory of the loss that occurred at Western Michigan in 2008 in Detroit. We went in uber confident, and I remember watching the game at a bar in DC only to lose ugly and horribly to a subpar WMU team. What makes me nervous is that this year’s WMU team may be better, and it’s not really clear where we’re at.
If nothing else, I’m excited to get a glimpse of what this season will be bringing. It’s nice to have a fresh, clean slate and an open mind to pick up whatever Coach Beckman is putting down. Above everything else, these guys need to remember what it’s like to have fun on the football field, because somehow Ron Zook made them forget how to do that.
Final prediction: Illinois with a narrow win.