Tate: Illini must turn bad mojo
Positive momentum is believed to be psychologically inspirational to the hot team.
It’s called the “snowball effect.” Conversely, it can complicate efforts for repeated losers.
The snowball issue became a concern this week for Tim Beckman’s Illini football team. For two decades, Illini coaches have visited and revisited the task of halting losing streaks. With two consecutive lopsided losses at home, the Illini are two-TD underdogs as they invade Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium. And if they lose, it’ll will mark the 16th time since 1996 that they’ve dropped at least three in a row, those tailspins in individual seasons reaching 11, nine (twice), seven and six (twice).
Acknowledging his awareness of the UI past, Beckman said Monday: “We talked about last season (a six-game losing streak) and what we have to do.
“The last two weeks have been really, really tough, not just for the program but for Illini Nation. Now we face a very physical football team. Overall Saturday, Penn State was more physical than we were. This is Big Ten football and we have to step up our intensity to match what the Badgers have.
“This must be a new process. We have to find out what the problems are and fix them.”
Constantly battling injuries and player adjustments, Beckman said:
“We are going through some growing pains and we have depth issues, which I mentioned earlier, and we haven’t been healthy.”
The team has reportedly lost the equivalent of 23 full games by established starters. Longtime center Graham Pocic, previously sidelined, started at tackle Saturday to replace ailing Hugh Thornton.
“It was different, playing tackle for the first time since high school,” Pocic said. “You’re blocking quicker defensive ends with pass-rush moves whereas, at center, you’re blocking bigger guys. Wisconsin has powerful linemen, and their linebackers, 44 and 53 (Chris Borland and Mike Taylor), are two of the best we’ll face all year.
“In previous years here, we played the same linemen at the same positions. But I don’t think it makes much of a difference to move guys around. It depends on the players.”
OK, Graham, where will you play this week?
“I don’t know yet,” he replied.
An encouraging aspect Saturday was the unhampered return of Nathan Scheelhaase, who ran without hesitation and completed 28 of 46 passes for 270 yards. An inability to finish three drives inside Penn State’s 10-yard line made the score more lopsided than it might have been. Illinois was held to seven points by Penn State for the second straight year.
“It is important that we finish those drives when we get down there,”Scheelhaase said.
“I am definitely getting my legs under me, not only designed quarterback runs but in moving out of the pocket. It is important to put pressure on the defense from the quarterback position.”
Scheelhaase was the central figure in an opening six-game win streak last season, as well as the closing six-game losing streak.
“We can’t be thinking ‘Here we go again.’ We don’t want that in anybody’s mind-set. We know what the issues were last year, and we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. There’s still a lot of season left,” he said.
The Badger-Illini series displays another of those snowball looks. Illinois lost just once from 1978 through 1992. Wisconsin has an 11-3 (one tie) edge in the last 19 years. A year ago, Illinois led the Big Ten champions 17-7 at halftime but fell 28-17. This 3-2 Badger team has thus far disappointed the home fans, barely beating Northern Iowa 26-21 and Utah State 16-14, but displaying promise in Saturday’s 30-27 loss at Nebraska.
“They’re coming off a tough loss and trying to find their identity,” Scheelhaase said, “and we’re the same way. It’s going to be a matter of who can execute and focus.”
— Mason Monheim had 11 tackles and a forced fumble Saturday, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors. Said Beckman: “He’s made great strides. We had to take Jonathan Brown out, so we had two true freshmen (Ohioans Monheim and Mike Svetina) side by side most of the game. I’m proud of them. I knew Mason was a fine player when I watched him two years ago in high school, but I didn’t know how quickly he would grow up mentally. He’s made great strides.”
— Defensive tackle Jake Howe, who has played in all five games as a backup for Akeem Spence, has been lost for the season with a fractured arm. Beckman said he’ll promote a freshman to the depth chart.
— Sophomore safety Earnest Thomas has been cleared for the Wisconsin game after being ejected Saturday for a helmet-to-helmet hit. Said Beckman: “It was a judgment call and I respect the official’s decision. I talked to the Big Ten office about it. It wasn’t intentional. The concussion rule is there to protect the student-athletes, and I fully support it. Earnest was simply trying to make a play.”
— Louisiana Tech not only picked up wins at Illinois and Virginia but took in $775,000 from the UI and $825,000 Saturday. Tech is the exception to the rule that defense wins games, having permitted 148 points in a high-scoring 4-0 start. Watch for the makeup game with Texas A&M on Oct. 13.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.