EVANSTON — As Northwestern’s players raced to the northwest corner of Ryan Field to celebrate with the Land of Lincoln Trophy, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald, game ball in hand, embraced Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and whispered a word of encouragement to the embattled fourth-year junior.
“He said he knows it’s been a tough season and just kind of wishing me the best for the future,” Scheelhaase said.
Northwestern’s 50-14 win officially brought an end to an Illinois season that couldn’t be done soon enough.
Pick any word with a negative connotation — awful, ugly, depressing, disaster — they all fit when describing what went down in Tim Beckman’s first season.
Illinois (2-10, 0-8 Big Ten) went winless in the conference for the fourth time since 1997. During that stretch, four other Big Ten teams have gone winless in the league — none more than once. The Illini ended 2012 on a nine-game losing streak and have lost 16 of 19 dating to last season.
“The losing hurts. You want your kids — just like you want your sons — to experience winning. We didn’t experience winning this year; it’s one of the hardest years I’ve ever been through,” an emotional Beckman said.
The Illini were penalized eight times for 88 yards — all in the first half — and turned the ball over four times in their most lopsided loss to their in-state rivals since getting shellacked 61-23 in 2000.
The Wildcats (9-3, 5-3) rushed for 338 yards and got touchdown runs from Venric Mark (18 carries, 127 yards), quarterback Kain Colter (14 carries, 88 yards) and Mike Trumpy.
While Northwestern prepares for a bowl game, the Illini shift immediately into evaluation mode.
“Every one of our coaches will be evaluated,” Beckman said. “Every one of our coordinators, we’ll evaluate our offensive coaches (and our defensive coaches). Everyone on our training staff, we’ll evaluate our training room, we’ll evaluate everything we have to see if there’s things that we can do better. I think that’s probably done everywhere.”