CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Tim Beckman will be on unfamiliar turf Saturday as he opens his career as Illinois coach. At least he knows the opponent, and it's one that might jangle the former defensive coordinator's nerves.
The Illini open against Western Michigan and Beckman knows all too well what's coming. His Toledo Rockets just managed to outgun the pass-happy Broncos last fall, winning 66-63.
"That game was really their breakout game, going empty (backfield) and not playing very many backs at all. Sometimes there wasn't even a back in the football game," Beckman said.
Longtime Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit said the game put his Broncos in the limelight.
"Everywhere I go out of this region, (people say), 'Hey, I saw you play,'" Cubit said.
Illinois seems likely to see another aerial assault by Broncos quarterback Alex Carder. He threw the ball, on average, 38 times per game last fall for the 7-6 Broncos. Fifty-plus passes wasn't unusual; the Broncos put the ball up 57 times against Purdue and 58 against Miami.
Against Illniois, Carder led WMU to a 13-10 halftime lead. He called the eventual 23-10 loss "gut wrenching."
That narrow Illini escape was part of a 6-0 start that proved to be an illusion. Illinois lost the next six before finishing 7-6, costing Ron Zook his job as coach.
Beckman, whose defensive background is sometimes overshadowed by his teams' emphasis on offense through the spread, said this week that Illinois' focus will be on stopping Carder and the high-tempo Broncos offense.
"They've got a quarterback in Alex Carder who, in my opinion, can play anywhere," Beckman said, adding that he plans to substitute liberally to keep his defense — likely the strength of the Illini — from tiring as it chases Carder and tries to cover a pack of receivers accustomed to running off 70 or more plays.
A handful of freshman defensive players will have to be ready to play. "They've got to — they have to play," Beckman said.
The key may be covering well enough to give senior defensive end Michael Buchanan — who had 7 1/2 sacks last season — and junior linebacker Jonathan Brown chances to pressure Carder.
Cubit says his quarterback is starting over this season with a new group of receivers, but may be better than ever.
"He's doing some things where he walks off the field and you say, 'Wow!'," Cubit said. "But he's really going to have to play well for us to win."
Illinois overtook Western Michigan last season after quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and a rotation of running backs took over the game in the second half, chewing up 184 yards in the final 30 minutes and limiting Carder's opportunities.
Scheelhaase, now a junior, and one of those backs, sophomore Donovonn Young, are back, and likely to do most of the running in Beckman's spread offense. Scheelhaase lost top receiver A.J. Jenkins to the NFL.
The Illini running game could be strong, but much will depend on the line. It was a weakness as the team fell apart in 2011 and continues to be a question. The best returning lineman, Graham Pocic, has been practicing at both center and guard over the past week as Illinois juggles the players around him looking for the best fit.
Some of what happens Saturday could depend on the weather. Forecasters say that what's left of Tropical Storm Isaac could pour anywhere from a couple of inches to almost 9 inches of rain on eastern Illinois Saturday and Sunday. Forecasts vary widely.
Beckman said the Illini have practiced with that in mind.
"We've definitely looked at some of that stuff, with the hurricane coming up here, especially with the kicking game," he said.
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