Season Recap: Tim Beckman led the Illini back to college football’s postseason in 2014, finishing the regular season at 6-6. A 3-1 record in the non-conference schedule was important for Illinois to get back into the bowl season as it finished the year with only three wins in Big Ten play. Even though the Illini finished with a sub-.500 record in the conference, the three wins were a huge leap forward for a program that posted just one league win in the previous two seasons.
Early in the year, Illinois established itself as a pass-heavy offense that looked to put a lot of points on the scoreboard. In non-conference play, Illinois averaged 32.8 points per game, a statistic that declined by more than a touchdown average when Big Ten play began.
Illinois was led by quarterbacks Wes Lunt and Reilly O’Toole throughout the year, with Lunt getting the starting job and O’Toole seeing plenty of action due to Lunt’s injuries this season. The two totaled 3,107 yards and 24 touchdowns through the air to lead the Illini.
The biggest struggle for the Illini came defensively, which ranked 109th nationally in points allowed. In losses to Washington, Nebraska and Ohio State, Illinois surrendered 48 points per game, one of the highest three-game totals in the nation.
Six wins seemed like a pipe dream to begin the season in Champaign, but good play outside the Big Ten and closing out the season with two straight victories got Illinois to the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Even though it finished with a 6-7 record, there’s some momentum building for Beckman’s program.
High Point: The pinnacle of Illinois’ season came in late October when it upset Minnesota 28-24 to keep postseason hopes alive. It was the defense’s strongest performance of the season, forcing 3 turnovers and limiting the Gophers to just 24 points in the win. It was an unlikely win with Illinois gaining just 263 total yards on the afternoon.
Low Point: Probably the biggest disappointment came in the final game of the year, losing to Louisiana Tech 35-18. There was more expected from a team that won its final two games of conference play to earn a right for a 13th game, but Illinois struggled in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. O’Toole had a solid performance in the game, but the defense and running game led to the demise of Illinois.
Best Player: There were plenty of offensive players that stepped up this season, but O’Toole was the guy who had the most impact on this team this year. When Lunt went down, O’Toole answered the call. His season numbers weren’t as grand as Lunt’s, but he played well in wins over Minnesota, Penn State and Northwestern. Without the solid back-up quarterback, it could’ve been another long season in Champaign and Beckman might be looking for another job.
2015 Outlook: Illinois appears to be trending upward but there are still major areas of concern heading into next season. The Illini need to improve the running game and will have to make more strides on the defensive side of the football to compete in the Big Ten. Lunt’s return in 2015 will be a huge benefit, but Illinois cannot be as one-dimensional as it was in 2014 to be successful.