There is no turnaround without a defining moment.
That’s where Tim Beckman’s Illini stand as they wade into three October encounters as, once again, rank underdogs.
The Big Ten losing streak (14) is still alive. Somewhere in the next three ventures — Saturday’s uphill challenge at Nebraska or the home dates against Wisconsin and Michigan State — this football squad must make a statement.
You know, like beating No. 1 Indiana in basketball. A shocker! Something that sets a fresh mood for subsequent events.
Otherwise, momentum will be stalled, and November will dawn bleak and dreary with Illini Nation turning to wintry thoughts and indoor activities.
My concern from the beginning is how these three games will impact the remaining five on the schedule. One upset and a bowl trip remains possible, even likely. Three losses and late-season slippage becomes a concern, as it often does for tailenders at that time of year.
Let’s analyze the October rivals.
Offensively, this is a multi-talented unit that, in Bo Pelini’s words, can field talent “capable of beating any team in the country if we play well. When we’re on point and executing, regardless who the quarterback is, we’re pretty good.”
Illinois doesn’t figure to keep this unit contained. Nebraska’s offensive line is, as usual, exceptional and 5-foot-9 Ameer Abdullah is a sure-fire 1,000-yard rusher.
The UI plan is to get a fast start, remind Pelini doubters in the crowd that UCLA scored 38 consecutive points Sept. 14 and take advantage of Nebraska’s defensive shortcomings.
The latter will require a high percentage of completions and a low number of mistakes. Pelini has had an extra week to seek answers for a defense that gave up five Wyoming TDs in the opener and has been erratic ever since.
The Vegas over-under line anticipates at least 60 points in Lincoln, but questions remain whether 31 will be enough for the UI. Quite simply, Bill Cubit’s offense must continue to produce because Tim Banks’ unit will be hard-pressed to keep Nebraska out of the end zone.
Badgers are rugged
The idle Badgers are looking a week ahead to Northwestern after getting hammered by Ohio State.
OK, you’re right, that game was close, 31-24. But the Buckeyes built a 31-14 lead, and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer chastised himself for becoming clock-aware and trying to run late against a Badger unit that doesn’t permit such things when the strategy is obvious.
That said, new coach Gary Andersen has latched onto a rumbling snowball that has seen the Badgers go 10-3 in 2009, share the Big Ten title in 2010, beat Michigan State in the 2011 Big Ten playoff and rout Nebraska 70-31 after reaching the playoff again last year with a 4-4 Leaders Division record (Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible).
The Badgers have earned a reputation of physicality on both sides of the football, a fact that will require Illinois to reach new levels of aggressiveness in the trenches. One strong runner like Nebraska’s Abdullah is troublesome, but Wisconsin has two stalwarts in Melvin Gordon and James White. Kenosha’s Gordon is averaging 10.3 yards through 68 carries.
Michigan State is the opposite of Nebraska in that the Spartans excel defensively and have turned to sophomore Connor Cook in hopes of reviving an inconsistent attack.
Saturday’s trip to Iowa will set football back several decades in terms of offensive strategy. May the team with the fewest concussions win. Since Mark Dantonio arrived, his series with Kirk Ferentz defies description:
2007 — Iowa won in 2OT, 34-27;
2008 — Michigan State stopped Shonn Greene on fourth and 1 at the 21 to win 16-13;
2009 — Ricky Stanzi threw a 7-yard TD pass at :00 for Iowa’s 15-13 win;
2010 — Spartans were 8-0 but lost 37-6 at Iowa;
2011 — Spartans paid them back 37-21;
2012 — Iowa prevailed 19-16 in 2OT.
The Illini have played Michigan State twice in the last six years so, if they need to be reminded, these are the kind of hard-nosed, close-to-vest games that the Spartans play.
It’s asking a lot
From their standpoint, the next three opponents fully expect to take Illinois in stride, to triumph without a second thought.
Nebraska’s football tradition speaks for itself, serving as the primary impetus for gaining Big Ten membership. The teams haven’t met since 1985-86, when the Huskers coasted 52-25 and 59-14. They’re in the same time zone as Illinois, but it’s a different world. The third-largest city in Nebraska will be in the stands Saturday, and they would turn Pelini into their version of Mack Brown if the Cornhuskers falter.
Barry Alvarez established Wisconsin’s dominance over Illinois in the early 1990s, and the Badgers are 12-3 (one tie) in the series since 1993. A 31-26 win in the Rose Bowl season of 2007 is the only Illini victory in the last decade.
Michigan State also has ruled Illinois by winning 11 of 12 since 1995.
That’s what Beckman’s Illini are up against. We’ve seen enough improvement up to now to be encouraged. October will reveal a great deal more.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.