How do you stop a runaway freight? Even Beckman’s strongest supporters must acknowledge that Illinois’ defense was beyond inept Saturday
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Progress? It is in the eye of the beholder and, at this juncture, the Tim Beckman jury is wavering.
On consecutive road trips, Illinois led Penn State late and lost in overtime, then led Indiana in the third quarter before unraveling, 52-35. There are signs, but is it progress?
That’s Tim Beckman’s charge, you see. He must redirect downcast arrows and, in brief spurts, there have been moments of hope.
But somehow, someway, he must win a Big Ten football game. We’ll withhold judgment for another week as Illinois is too lacking on defense to think about upsetting unbeaten and well-rested Ohio State next weekend.
But here we are, sneaking up on 20. How do you stop a runaway freight? Even Beckman’s strongest supporters must acknowledge that Illinois’ defense was beyond inept Saturday ... outweighing whatever improvements we’ve seen with the offense and special teams.
On one sideline, there’s head coach Kevin Wilson in command of a rousing, big-strike attack that is putting up basketball numbers and could be top 10 this week in total offense.
On the other sideline, Beckman has a direct role — he actually handles the cornerbacks — with a defense that is as porous as a bottomless bucket.
Indiana scored from 64 yards (early) and 75 yards (late) on routine handoffs to Tevin Coleman, the latest in a list of 200-plus rushers. And Cody Latimore, who was apparently invisible in the Illini secondary, caught 11 passes for 189 yards and three TDs.
Beckman, having turned over the UI offense to Bill Cubit (he has revived Nathan Scheelhaase), works closely with coordinator Tim Banks, and these two are essentially responsible for what has evolved into a disaster.
D for the defense
What we witnessed on both sides Saturday supports the theory that it’s possible — through formations, strategy and strong passing arms — to produce an effective offense via scheming.
But it takes deep talent to excel on defense. Illinois is lacking and it can’t be faked. You either have the muscle to stop the run or you get run over. And you can’t put eight in the box without leaving your corners on an island.
As we saw, Indiana defeated Illinois with half a team. Indiana insiders say the best four Hoosier defenders are a fifth-year senior who arrived as a baseball pitcher (safety Greg Heban), a walk-on defensive end (Nick Mangieri), a freshman linebacker (T.J. Simmons) and a converted safety (cornerback Tim Bennett).
Meanwhile, Wilson runs an offense with two solid quarterbacks, a running back averaging more than 100 yards per game, and a receiver corps so stacked that some might be better employed to bolster the secondary.
Yes, you can pull upsets with an aerial cleverness or punish underlings like Illinois with basic plays, but you can’t win consistently without rugged, reactive talent on the defensive side ... the kind of players that are scarce and usually sign on with elite powers.
Back to the point: Is it realistic that Beckman, with time, can outwrestle this monster?
Forget about Saturday’s poorly executed fake punt — awful timing, Illinois trailed only 42-35 with 12 minutes left — or the decision to punt on fourth and 3 early at the Indiana 33 (netted 13 yards).
We can argue about play calls without resolution. What we need to know is whether there is a fundamental weakness in the scheme or the athletes are simply 600 yards bad.
Linebacker Jonathan Brown, who starred for a defense that was No. 7 nationally two years ago, blames it on youth.
Fresh from spearing Illinois’ second interception of the season, Brown said: “When these guys mature, the defense will be fine. They’re just young, and Indiana has one of the best offenses I’ve seen since I’ve been here. They’re good. They broke it open in the fourth quarter.”
OK, but let’s be honest. If a Big Ten cellar dweller is going to climb, it begins with Indiana and Purdue ... and half of that duo won going away.
Athletic director Mike Thomas calls John Groce’s Illini a “Tale of Two Teams” because the quintet on the floor is so different from the group coming off the bench.
This may be a “new club” to Groce but the starters are more experienced than most rivals as they field two fifth-year forwards, a fourth-year junior in Rayvonte Rice and two juniors who were regulars last season.
It may turn out that, at the same stage in development, these freshmen have more basketball skills. But, for the time being, they are not better than veterans who are two, three and four years older. Even as coaches treat redshirting like it’s the plague — what they really want are one-and-doners — we may again see the advantages of having older players.
Speaking of one-and-done, Curie’s Cliff Alexander will be untouchable this week as the “dead period” starts Monday as we approach Friday’s signing date.
NOTEWORTHY: Unhappiness broke out at Kansas State late Friday as Bruce Weber’s talent-shy team fell to Northern Colorado 60-58 ... Weber commenting: “We have too many excuses and not enough desire.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.