CHAMPAIGN — A possible shift in Illinois’ season was bound to unfold Saturday.
Beat Michigan State and postseason plans become more realistic. Lose and Tim Beckman’s staff probably could get an early jump on recruiting in December.
Looks like the Illinois coaches might have a chance to evaluate future recruits more in-depth in about a month — unless they can find three wins in November. That seems like a daunting task after Michigan State left Memorial Stadium with a convincing 42-3 win in front of 45,895 fans on a breezy afternoon.
“We come out in the second half and didn’t play the way that I really believe we’re capable of playing,” Beckman said. “I said to this football team, and I brought the seniors up to the middle, that we’re going to do whatever is possible amongst this football family that we have to make sure that these seniors leave these last five football games proud of what they accomplished.”
No one was feeling especially proud after the worst loss of the season for Illinois.
“Right now we need to have a real small focus on what we’re paying attention to,” quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said after he completed 13 of 21 passes for a season-low 103 yards. “We don’t need to pay attention to what’s in the past. We don’t need any long term of what’s going on in the future. We have seven days to worry about.”
Most fans at Memorial Stadium were long gone by the time Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio pulled most of his starters early in the fourth quarter. Illinois players and coaches hurried off the Memorial Stadium turf, with sighs and feelings of frustration easy to see after a second-half meltdown.
“I don’t know what our deal is coming out in the second half,” LEO Houston Bates said. “We just have to be better.”
The long Big Ten losing streak — 17 games — continues into another fall weekend for Illinois.
“We’re definitely disappointed,” tight end Jon Davis said. “I know on offense this isn’t where we have been all year. We’re used to scoring points. We’ve just got to go back to work.”
All the energy and good vibes Illinois built up in keeping the game competitive until late in the second quarter faded away after halftime. Quickly.
Michigan State’s Connor Cook looked like an All-Big Ten quarterback instead of a redshirt sophomore starting his seventh career game. He completed 15 of 16 passes for 208 yards with three touchdowns and barely played in the fourth quarter with the outcome well in hand. Didn’t matter much with the way the Spartans’ defense contained the Illinois offense after halftime. Illinois only had one first down in the second half.
“Ultimately, we’ve just got to stop feeling sorry for ourselves,” Scheelhaase said. “Nobody else is going to feel sorry for us on the rest of our schedule. We’re no longer a young or inexperienced team. I promise you next week Penn State doesn’t care how young or inexperienced we are or who we’ve lost to. We’ve just got to step up.”
If Illinois doesn’t, November might look even bleaker for the Illini than the film they’ll have to watch of Saturday’s debacle.
“It’s going to be a challenge keeping everybody’s heads up and working to get a win next week against Penn State,” linebacker Jonathan Brown said. “I don’t know if it’s feeling sorry for themselves, but it’s definitely frustration. There’s a lot of plays we can make and a lot of better situations we could be in, but we’re not putting the two together right now, and it’s showing up on the field.”