CHAMPAIGN — As he does after every game, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas delivered high-fives to the Illini football players and staff as they moseyed off the Memorial Stadium turf in the penultimate game of the season, a 20-17 loss to Purdue on Saturday.
Even with a trip to Maui looming today to follow John Groce’s basketball team, Thomas hasn’t given up on his football squad.
And though it’s been a disaster of a season, the Illini players had enough gumption to trade blows with the Boilermakers in the second half until time ran out.
“That’s great for us to go out there and see nobody is out there quitting; everybody was out there fighting to the end,” senior Terry Hawthorne said.
But like they have so often this season, Illinois (2-9, 0-7 Big Ten) came up short. Purdue, meanwhile, put itself within a win at home next week against rival Indiana from clinching a bowl berth.
Three lost fumbles — two by receiver Ryan Lankford and another by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (160 passing yards, 76 rushing, TD) — crippled the Illini, who were hoping to prevent their Big Ten losing streak from reaching 13.
“We turned the football over too much again,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “You cannot turn the football over and win. I’ve stated that since Day 1.”
A solid defensive effort — Illinois held Purdue to 8 yards in the first quarter — couldn’t overcome a pair of big plays by the Boilermakers (5-6, 2-5) in the second half.
A 63-yard screen pass on a busted coverage went for a touchdown from Robert Marve (173 passing yards, TD) to Akeem Hunt. Another 63-yard play, a run by Ralph Bolden (93 yards), set up a 6-yard Akeem Shavers (99 yards) touchdown run to give the Boilermakers a cushion after the Illini cut the lead to three late in the third quarter. Of Purdue’s 398 total yards, 126 came on two plays.
“You’ve got to play every snap, and I thought our guys, for the most part, did that,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “Two big plays were catastrophic. Obviously, if we had it to do over again, we’d like to think we’d make that play.”
All that remains in Beckman’s first season as the Illinois coach is a rivalry game next week at Northwestern, the program he almost exclusively refers to as “the school upstate.”
“I probably will get in trouble for saying (Northwestern) — I’ve got to get that habit off me — but it’s cool, you want to build something special like (the rivalry),” Scheelhaase said. “We’ve both got two different mottos that call each other out in a way, so that’s cool and should be building and building.”
PLAY OF THE GAME
A touchdown run by Dami Ayoola cut Purdue’s lead to 13-10 and got the Memorial Stadium crowd going. But on the next play from scrimmage, Purdue’s Ralph Bolden raced 63 yards to the Illinois 15. Akeem Shavers found the end zone two plays to suck the life right back out of the crowd.
That was the last time Illinois won on Senior Day, a streak that will continue into next season. The Illini have lost home finales to Ohio State, Fresno State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Purdue in that span by an average of 5.8 points per game.
WHAT IT MEANS
The season will mercifully come to an end after one more game. And the Illini are staring at the possibility of a winless Big Ten campaign for the first time since 2005, Ron Zook’s first season.
A road game at rival Northwestern with the Land of Lincoln Trophy on the line. The Illini have won two straight in the series and Tim Beckman has added life to the rivalry, often refusing to say “Northwestern” and making injured players wear purple jerseys at practice. If the ‘Cats get up big, don’t expect Pat Fitzgerald’s squad to let off the gas.