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Opponent Q&A, Illinois: CBS Eye on College Football Blogger and Illinois SB Nation Blog Producer Tom Fornelli

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn

Beating Michigan State on the road no doubt eliminated some of the sour taste that lingered in the wake of Northwestern's devastating loss at Michigan. The Wildcats carry a different emotional mindset into Saturday's game against Illinois. It's about scoring some pride in what's developed into Illinois' best college football rivalry game. Illinois coach Tim Beckman has amplified the mutual antagonism since inheriting the head coaching job prior to this season. From the slashed-out purple N plastered in the locker room, to the new team slogan "Illinois. Our State. Our Team.", Illinois has provided Northwestern more than enough fodder for fury. The Wildcats look to have the upper hand in Saturday's matchup, yet we thought it pertinent to give you an opposing perspective, we got in touch with Tom Fornelli. His title -- CBS Eye on College Football Blogger and Producer of Illinois SB Nation Blog The Champaign Room -- speaks for itself, but beyond his professional designations, Fornelli serves up some of the best comedic college football commentary around. As such, we highly recommend you give him a follow @TomFornelli.

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Contrary to what first-year Ohio State coach Urban Meyer would lead you to believe, not all coaching transitions are smooth processes. What has gone wrong for Tim Beckman? And how does he plan to improve the program going forward?

TF: I think the biggest road bump for Beckman was not being able to bring Matt Campbell with him from Toledo. Campbell was the brain behind Toledo's offense, and as is obvious looking at Toledo's record this season, the Rockets haven't missed a beat. Meanwhile Beckman put together a coaching staff that by some reports, doesn't even get along.

He also inherited a team that didn't have a lot of talent. People point to all the Illini drafted in the NFL last season as if those players are still in Champaign. They're not, and they left the Illini pretty thin at some key positions. Ron Zook's last two recruiting classes were not very good, and Beckman is having to deal with that right now.

Where do you sense things really started to go south for the Illini this year? The nonconference losses to Arizona State and Louisiana Tech were tough, but was there a certain point where this team lost all hope of salvaging a good season?

TF: I think it was when Nathan Scheelhaase got hurt. He didn't have many practices in the new offense and he came back for Big Ten play without a lot of experience in or knowledge of the offense. And he had to learn behind an offensive line that couldn't block you or me.

As for the season, after losing three in a row to Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan by a score of 111-21, let's just say we all started looking forward to basketball season.

What has been the biggest area of dysfunction on offense? on defense?

TF: On offense it's been the offensive line, no question. That's where everything starts, and unfortunately for the Illini, it's also ended there. Over and over again. On defense you probably have to point at the secondary, but it's really just the entire unit. It's been good against the run but the defense tends to wear down thanks to an offense that cannot stay on the field.

Can you highlight a reason for Nathan Scheelhaase's regression? Is it more a function of not having enough playmakers? or do the problems lie with Scheelhaase?

TF: I mentioned the injuries and offensive line already, but, yes, the lack of playmakers on offense certainly isn't helping. He's just shellshocked right now, and it's hard to blame him. He basically has time to make one read on a pass and if that first receiver isn't open he's getting hit before he can look to the second.

Highlight some of the bright (er) spots, some of the players who are having good seasons but whose success is being overshadowed by the Illini's 2-9 record?

TF: Ashante Williams, Akeem Spence and Terry Hawthorne are all having good seasons on defense. Sadly they're all likely to be gone at the end of the year. As for the future, freshman Mason Monheim provides a glimmer of hope. He's been a tackling machine this year.

Who is Illinois' best offensive player? Best defensive player?

TF: I have literally spent five minutes trying to figure out who our best offensive player is in response to your question. I think that says more about the situation than naming any one player could ever do. On defense I'll go with Ashante Williams. He's second on the team with tackles and he's also scored two touchdowns, which, now that I think about it...Ashante Williams is our best offensive player too.

What are the chances the Illini put behind their dreadful season and rise up for the Land of Lincoln Rivalry?

TF: Somewhere between lol and LOLOLOLOLOLOL.