When you’re down and wallowing, that’s where the boots are. And everybody is kicking around Tim Beckman’s struggling Illini these days.
Here’s what ESPN’s astute Adam Rittenberg said this week:
“Beckman didn’t inherit a mess at Illinois, even if it looks that way after seven games. While underachieving since 2007, the Illini had won back-to-back bowl games for the first time in history.
“No one could have foreseen the disaster that has taken place in the first half of the season. Four of the five defeats have come by 28 points or more. Illinois has dropped its first three Big Ten contests by a combined score of 111-21.
“Most of the problems have been on offense, which lacks an identity and ranks no better than 96th nationally in any major category and is tied for 117th in the FBS in turnovers (18). The Illini have no players ranked in the Big Ten’s top 10 in rushing, passing or receiving. They allowed more than 30 points just twice in 2011. They already have done so five times this season.”
College ShameDay, which delights in rubbing it in to the likes of Kentucky and Auburn, pinpointed Illinois’ performance at Michigan:
“One way to describe Denard Robinson’s first throw is ‘a 71-yard completion for a TD.’ Another would be ‘nearly three times the passing yardage that the expired Velveeta brick, otherwise known as the Illinois offense, would put up in the whole game.’
“Seven completions for 29 yards is bad. Completing only one pass for positive yardage in the second half is biblically catastrophic. Quarterback Reilly O’Toole might as well have been throwing frogs out there.
“In 2010, the Illini ranked 48th in the country in plays of 30 yards or more. They dropped to 80th in 2011. Currently, they sit at 119th. Here is the good news: There are not 150 teams in FBS, so Illinois cannot continue to drop at that pace.”
Deja vu all over again
OK, enough with the snarkiness. The situation is bad, and everyone knows it. This reminds of Ron Zook’s first season in 2005, when the Illini lost consecutive Big Ten games by scores of 61-14, 35-7, 36-13, 63-10 (Penn State led 56-3 at halftime), 41-24, 40-2, 37-3 and 38-21. That’s an average margin of roughly 44-12, or 32 points ... which is about what the 37-7 average margin is in three outings this season.
Now, brace yourself and prepare for two bits of positive news.
— Two years later in 2007, Illinois beat No. 1 Ohio State, won nine games and qualified for a trip to the Rose Bowl.
— Four teams that Illinois hallucinators figured to beat prior to the 2012 season are still on the schedule: Indiana (2-4), Minnesota (4-2), Purdue (3-3) and Northwestern (6-1).
To be sure, much has changed since August, including our perception of this Illini team.
Meanwhile Indiana, having lost 41-39 to Ball State, has scored at a high rate in three Big Ten setbacks; Minnesota started 4-0, then lost to Iowa and Northwestern; Purdue appeared improved until the Boilermakers ran into Michigan and Wisconsin; and NU clutch play has the Wildcats already bowl eligible.
— Mike Thomas is meeting with Illini officials to establish the appropriate cost of naming rights on various aspects of the Assembly Hall renovation, not only the big one — the new name based on a major sponsor — but for such aspects as the Hall of Fame, front entrance, court, etc. It takes a lot of contributors to complete a $150 million operation, if that is the ultimate cost.
— Since you asked: With former Illini coaches Vic Koenning and Dan Disch serving as defensive co-coordinators, North Carolina reached 5-2 by holding Miami scoreless in the last 20 minutes of Saturday’s 18-14 squeaker. The Hurricanes penetrated to the 26- and 24-yard lines in the final period but were stopped.
— Reggie Theus, who made a run at the Illini basketball job but did not receive an interview, has hooked on as head coach of the Los Angeles quintet in the NBA Development League. Theus posted a 25-9 record as head coach at New Mexico State in 2007, earning him a brief stint as head coach of Sacramento in the NBA. He was a Pac-12 analyst for Fox Sports last season.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.