Illini credit closeness for turnaround

Illinois is a surprising 2-0 after last week's thumping of Cincinnati. The reasons the Illini look so much better to start the season include the arrival of offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, better overall health and ... a video game tournament?

Senior tight end Evan Wilson suggests that as one factor. Several players battled head to head in NBA 2K13 this summer, with receiver Miles Osei beating out tight end Jon Davis for the championship.

"A lot of feelings were hurt," Wilson says.

But Wilson said that tournament was one example of how the team came together to form a family-style bond unit this offseason. It's an effort that began shortly after Illinois lost to Northwestern last November to complete a dismal 2-10 season.

"We had a meeting right after that game where we all made a pact to buy in," offensive lineman Corey Lewis said. "Everybody agreed to buy into the system, and we really harped on that."

Lewis said players made a conscious effort to spend more time together in the offseason, eating meals at the same time, going to the movies and doing community service projects. Head coach Tim Beckman continued to foster that during training camp with a team outing to a local water park.

"We were just getting to know each other more," Lewis said. "A lot of times, you see seniors who have no idea what the freshmen are like. But I think we're a tight-knit group. Our seniors talk to our freshmen. There are no cliques or anything like that. We're a family."

A healthy dose of skepticism here is understandable, as many teams talk about offseason bonding techniques. But Beckman stressed throughout the offseason that his players were doing everything right on the field, in the classroom and in the community. He sensed that his second year as coach in Champaign was building toward something better.

"We had done so many great things for 10 months, but of course you don't play a football game so you don't know," Beckman said this week. "But these players have bought in to all the things we've asked to do. You can see those things hopefully corresponding to and relating to what we do on the football field. At least in the last two games, the hard work we put in in January and the offseason paid off for us."

The most obvious change for Illinois on the field is the vast improvement by the offense. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has thrown for 728 yards and six touchdowns through two weeks. Last season, the Illini had three passing touchdowns in their entire eight-game Big Ten season. The team averaged just 11.8 points in its final eight games of 2012; so far through two games, it is scoring 43.5 points per game.

Cubit's spread system is a big key to that, obviously, but so is Scheelhaase's health. The senior battled through injuries nearly all season in 2012, and when he went in for a postseason knee examination, "it was a lot worse than people thought," Beckman said.

It also helps to have senior linebacker Jonathan Brown back and healthy. He leads the team with 23 tackles after dealing with a series of injuries a year ago. While 2012 was mostly one to forget for everyone associated with the Illini, the sting of that memory drove the team.

"It's hard to stay positive in a 2-10 season, and at some points there wasn't any positivity around here," Brown said. "The biggest thing is that you use the losing and all the setbacks from last year as motivation. That's probably the best motivation you could have."

Wilson said the Cincinnati win was "vindication that there's a different atmosphere here," while Lewis says it "felt great to prove people wrong." At the same time, Illinois also started 2-1 last year before collapsing, and this week's game against No. 19 Washington at Soldier Field brings another jump in competition level.

The Illini still have much to prove. But if they can manage to pull off another upset, they might crack the Top 25 next week, believe it or not.

"I think a win would boost the program and really put us back on a national scale," Wilson said. "It would let people know Illinois is back, and we're still playing good football. That's all that matters to me."