EVANSTON — Seasoned Illinois fans might have a hard time coming to grips with this, but the Illini would kill to be in the position that Northwestern’s football program is in.
The Wildcats are headed to their fifth consecutive bowl game and are 10 games above .500 in the seven years Pat Fitzgerald has been in charge.
“It’s a seven-year belief. He’s built that thing, Coach Fitzgerald,” UI coach TIM BECKMAN said. “He’s done a good job. How many bowl games they’ve been to in a row?”
Beckman’s teams at Toledo won eight games in each of his last two seasons. He’s confident it can work at Illinois.
“The plan, it does work, it has worked,” he said. “Didn’t work this year, but there are reasons it has worked and there are beliefs behind it. You go with it and make sure you recruit players who believe the same thing.”
Zach Becker lived his dream of being an Illini football player, even through a career that was marked by multiple injuries. The fifth-year senior has had multiple surgeries on both feet and missed the final 11 games of last season after breaking an ankle.
But, for the local product from Homer who starred at St. Joseph-Ogden, it’s been a good ride.
“It’s definitely been an up-and-down five years. It’s been a long five years but flown by at the same time,” the fullback/linebacker said. “It’s been fun. Even though three of the five years have been losing seasons, I wouldn’t trade them for the world. We had a lot of good times.”
Becker will graduate in December and said he hopes to be accepted into a physical therapy program in time for the summer. He took off his pads for the last time Saturday.
“It hurt, but it’s time. It was kind of time to move on with my life and sort of growing up and moving into the real world,” he said. “Being so close to home, you grow up watching these guys, so it was huge to be able to play at home with all my friends and family to be able to watch and being a role model for those small-town kids and just showing them to work hard and their dreams can come true.”
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was intercepted twice against the Wildcats. He was replaced by Reilly O’Toole twice during the game, but Beckman said it wasn’t performance-based.
“That was going to be done before; now it just happened that we threw an interception. We just wanted to get Reilly in the football game. He did come in and just ironically it happened after an interception,” Beckman said.
Scheelhaase completed 9 of 14 passes for 91 yards. O’Toole went 3 of 4 for 25 yards with an interception. He also scored on a 12-yard run.
“We’ve got capable quarterbacks. That’s the greatest thing about the game of football: There’s always competition going on,” Beckman said. “If it’s not getting done at whatever position, then someone else will have an opportunity to come in and get it done.”
Scheelhaase finished an injury-marred junior season with career lows in passing yards (1,361), rushing yards (303) and passing touchdowns (four). He had eight interceptions.
“Obviously, it’s a lot different than last season,” Scheelhaase said. “Last season was a tough season because you’re feeling so high and then get brought back down. This one we felt like we’ve been in a struggle for a while. We’ve kind of been in a bind that we’re not able to claw out of. I’ve got one more year left; definitely don’t want to have that feeling again.”
Illinois was called for a few weird penalties early on. After going up 7-0 on a Donovonn Young touchdown run, the Illini converted a two-point conversion try but were flagged for illegal numbers.
“It was explained as a trick play, and the rule states that as long as you have seven players behind the line of scrimmage, it’s considered a kicking scrimmage, so the number situation doesn’t come into effect in having the proper number of 50s. We didn’t have the right number of guys from 50 to 79,” Beckman said.
Basically, Illinois didn’t have enough players along the line of scrimmage whose jersey numbers fell between 50 and 79.
Twice during the first half, Illinois was penalized for sideline interference. In each case, Beckman was the guilty party. The second time, he was run over by an official after a Northwestern interception.
“That was on me. The first one was on me. I was running out there getting involved in the game. The first time was definitely my fault,” Beckman said. “The second time I was behind the ball, as I always am because usually you’re behind the ball and the officials are all in front. Interception and they were running the other way. I’ll take the blame. That’s my fault. Not good on my part.”