CHAMPAIGN — It could be worse.
Of course, a homecoming loss to Indiana is distressing. Actually, embarrassing. The 31-17 homecoming result Saturday makes it 10 consecutive Big Ten football losses, with Ohio State next on the agenda.
But pay attention: The university and the Illini athletic department are surviving and flourishing despite a cutback here and a scandal there ... top-level firings and setbacks and failures that are maddening.
Compared with the state at large, these are minor. Check the campus. Lincoln Hall is completed and operating again, a plan for the $150 million renovation of the Assembly Hall is moving ahead, and the UI completed a $2.25 billion fundraising campaign this past summer.
Peering outside our cocoon to scan the bigger picture, we see far greater turmoil. We reside in a state where political failures have led to financial breakdowns, where unfunded entitlements can’t possibly last — bankruptcy, anyone? — and where the Legislature is an outrage. Back up in Chicago, for all its broad shoulders, we see a city sliding financially toward Lake Michigan.
Raise the roof
So it follows that a strain of negativism is bound to sweep through the Illini athletic ranks. How could it be otherwise with unhappiness in full bloom?
But, believe it or not, the DIA is engaged in a 20-year run of solvency. We never quite accept it, but for two decades Illini officials have emphasized that football losing streaks — and there have been many — aren’t particularly destructive to fundraising by either the university or DIA.
All that pool hall grumbling turns out to be hogwash. We hear about disgruntled donors who are jumping ship, but they are always replaced by others willing to contribute.
President Bob Easter noted Saturday that the Urbana-Champaign campus, which had a goal of roughly two-thirds of the overall $2.25 billion drive, met it six months early.
“We have many alumni and others who feel good about funding educational programs,” Easter said, “whether it’s their own college or one that they feel strongly about.”
And athletic director Mike Thomas said that just last week the DIA received three six-figure gifts amounting to roughly $1 million.
Responding to questions on the subject, Thomas said:
“Suggestions (an article in the Chicago Tribune) that we have financial problems are totally inaccurate. We’re one of the nation’s top 25 schools operating in the black. Our budget is in great shape.
“It is unfortunate when negative comments are made, particularly by unnamed sources, but that is a vocal minority. I continue to hear from a supportive donor base. We can’t let negativism reign.”
Through it all, the words of the late DIA fundraiser Dike Eddleman ring clear: “We’re doing fine but think how much better it would be if we were winning.”
In a game of the blind leading the blind Saturday, Indiana held out a tin cup and the Illini graciously filled it up.
It was homecoming and the hosts took the field with conviction. They had the Hoosiers reeling 14-7 early in the second quarter with a series of grinding assaults. But UI seniors, counted on by coach Tim Beckman to lead the team out of the darkness, lost the grip on their discipline and committed a series of grievous mental errors.
“We shot ourselves in the foot,” Beckman said. “We beat ourselves.”
The statistics bear him out. Illinois outdowned the Hoosiers 23-14, outgained them 372-292 and stopped them on third down 12 times out of 13.
But, oh, those penalties and turnovers. One right after another.
— Nathan Scheelhaase ran 5 yards for a 14-7 lead in the second quarter, and Illinois appeared to force a three and out only to have senior Justin Staples draw a major penalty for hitting Indiana freshman QB Nate Sudfeld on the sideline. Three plays later it was 14-14.
— Next up, Illini senior Hugh Thornton drew a holding penalty and the offense stalled. An exchange of punts found UI senior Tommy Davis fumbling when he tried to catch a sideline boot on the run. On fourth down at the 13, Indiana was granted a first down when UI senior Glenn Foster jumped offside, and Indiana scored to make it 21-14.
A cold spell
Whatever momentum the Illini had was lost, and the game blew up in their faces. Hard-running Donovonn Young, who capitalized on Indiana weaknesses to gain 124 yards, lost a fumble in that critical third quarter.
And when the Illini rammed to the Hoosier 1-yard line, a third-down plunge lost yardage, forcing a field goal. That was it: three points in the last 42 minutes of the game.
For the record, Indiana made mistakes, too. Starting quarterback Cameron Coffman came out early after he was picked off by Steve Hull (who left the game twice with more shoulder trouble). The Hoosiers drew a penalty on the Illini 5 but scored anyway.
The knockout blow came early in the fourth quarter when Illinois trailed 24-17 and the Hoosiers breezed 60 yards in six plays to tuck away their first Big Ten triumph since November 2010.
Such is life in Illinois these days. Another setback. But the DIA, despite scuttlebutt to the contrary, is meeting its payments and formulating big plans, and that’s more than a lot of other folks can say.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.