LINCOLN, Neb. — Jonathan Brown paced the visiting sidelines in Bloomington, Ind., out because of a suspension.
Josh Ferguson watched back on campus in Champaign, nursing an injury.
Matt LaCosse and Austin Teitsma were bit players on special teams. Nowhere close to starting.
At the time, Illinois fans probably couldn’t discern Tim Beckman from Tim Beck, the Nebraska offensive coordinator Beckman’s defense will try to stymie at 11 a.m. today in Lincoln, Neb.
Ron Zook was the talk of the town. Along with what bowl game Illinois would play in.
Life was good for the Illinois football program back on Oct. 8, 2011.
The day it won 41-20 at Indiana.
The day the Illini last won a Big Ten football game.
Fourteen is a magic number for most college football teams. Win 14 games and you’re almost guaranteed to win a national title. Lose 14 straight Big Ten games, like Illinois has done, and the number becomes more of an irritation.
“I’m not going to let it become a distraction,” Brown said. “When you do that, that’s when you start to think about things other than what you have to do on the field. It is definitely a thought in my mind and definitely using it as fuel for motivation.”
And an annoyance. It’s a fact they’re tired of trying to explain. Understandably so.
“We heard about it after last year a lot, but we’ve kind of put the things that we have done and the things we haven’t done in the past behind us,” quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “All we know is that we’re a 3-1 football team right now heading into conference play and getting to play a team that won their side of the division.”
Broaching the topic with Beckman brings a stock answer. One he has had since the end of spring practices.
“Everything’s forward,” the Illinois coach said. “We didn’t have a very good win streak here in Memorial Stadium, either. Hopefully we’ve changed that with the three victories here. We’re trying to move forward, and we know our first opponent is Nebraska.”
In order to move forward, however, winning in the Big Ten must happen. And it hasn’t. Illinois was the only Big Ten team to not win a conference game last season. Entering Big Ten play this weekend, five Big Ten teams don’t have league losing streaks. Add them up and losing streaks of the six other schools with losing streaks total 10 games. Minnesota and Indiana are the worst offenders behind Illinois. Each school has lost three straight in the conference.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I wanted to end it extremely badly,” LaCosse said. “It will feel good once it’s over.”
Losing in the Big Ten isn’t a new problem at Illinois. Previous coaches like Gary Moeller (17 games), Jim Valek (11 games) and Pete Elliott (11 games) oversaw lengthy losing streaks in conference play. The last season of Lou Tepper’s tenure in Champaign and the first two seasons with Ron Turner at the helm saw Illinois lose 15 straight Big Ten games.
“It’s been so long since we won a Big Ten game,” running back Josh Ferguson said.
Ferguson is spot on.
Among the five major power conferences — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — Illinois is one of two schools with a double-digit conference losing streak. The 14-game slide isn’t the worst in the country right now. It’s close, though.
Kansas takes a 21-game Big 12 losing streak into the Jayhawks’ game against Texas Tech today. No other team in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC has hit the double-digit mark in terms of consecutive league defeats, although Colorado and Kentucky are close. Both have nine straight conference setbacks.
To reach a bowl game for the third time in four seasons, Illinois must win at least three Big Ten games. That has only happened five times this century, so history isn’t exactly on Illinois’ side.
Right tackle Corey Lewis has dealt with both sides of the spectrum during his time at Illinois. The last member of the 2008 recruiting class still at Illinois, the sixth-year senior signed a letter of intent a month after Illinois played in the Rose Bowl.
“I’ve seen two eras now with Coach Zook and Coach Beckman,” he said. “I’ve seen winning. I’ve seen losing. I’ve seen bowl games. I’ve seen no bowl games. I’ve seen it all. When we’re losing, I try to lift people up. When we’re winning, I still try to lift people up. We can’t pat ourselves on the back for a 3-1 start. It’s all good and dandy, but it could easily go wrong.”
The majority of starters on this year’s team were around when the unraveling of the 2011 season and the six straight losses to end the season transpired.
“That was an absolutely fantastic feeling winning six in a row to start that year,” Teitsma said. “We were at an extreme high.”
A win against the Cornhuskers and the extreme high feeling might accompany Illinois on its flight back to Champaign this evening.
“It would help our confidence a little bit more,” Teitsma said, “and get us excited for the rest of the Big Ten.”
Excited for the rest of the Big Ten. Now there’s a sentiment those who follow Illinois football have not felt in recent years.
The confidence isn’t lacking on this year’s team.
“We feel like we can go out and play with anybody,” wide receiver Miles Osei said. “We know Nebraska’s a great team, and we know we’re a pretty good team, too. We know to get to some of our goals, this is just another team in our way.”
But, until they win a Big Ten game, they’ll hear about the current Big Ten struggles the program is enduring.
“It’d be great to have this media session next week and that’s not a question you ask about,” Lewis said. “It’s definitely something we think about, but is it the only thing we think about? No. Obviously, it’s been a while since we’ve won a Big Ten game. That’s something that we need to do to make a statement. By winning the game this week, we’ll make a statement, snap that losing streak and continue to move forward.”
Streaking, and not in the fun way
Winning in the Big Ten hasn’t come easy to Illinois coaches. At least lately. Ron Zook and Ron Turner each lost their first eight Big Ten games before snapping the streak. Tim Beckman is 0-8, too, heading into today’s game at Nebraska. Here’s how Zook and Turner ended their slides.
Zook’s slump buster:
def. Michigan State 23-20 on Sept. 30, 2006
Comment: Juice Williams was just a true freshman but showed his potential. Before Frank Lenti Jr. displayed his vertical. The 39-yard field goal from Jason Reda, with Lenti holding, set off a joyous reaction among the Illini, ended a 10-game Big Ten losing streak dating back to the 2004 season and snapped an 11-game Big Ten road losing streak dating back to 2002. Williams threw for 122 yards and rushed for 103 more to get his first win as the starting quarterback, Pierre Thomas gained 110 yards on 18 carries and Illinois celebrated by trying to plant a team flag at midfield.
They said it: “We’re the Fighting Illini, not the Lay Down Illini. Right now, a ton of confidence is going through my body. Pretty much the nerves are gone. I’m starting to feel more and more comfortable with the offense.” — Juice Williams
Turner’s slump buster:
def. Northwestern 13-10 on Oct. 3, 1998
Comment: Rocky Harvey hadn’t yet leaped into the end zone at Michigan Stadium. Kurt Kittner only had two touchdown passes to his name. And Gary Barnett wasn’t planning a move to Colorado. The win in Evanston ended a 15-game Big Ten losing streak, giving the program its first win against a league foe since outlasting Indiana 46-43 on Oct. 5, 1996, in Champaign. Harvey, who rushed for 132 yards on 40 carries, scored both touchdowns in this win. One came on an 8-yard run right before halftime and another on a 6-yard pass in the fourth quarter from Kittner, who was making the second start of his career. The second touchdown ended with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty assessed to Harvey after he saluted the crowd, but the Illini were able to head back south with a long-awaited win.
They said it: “I just feel really good right now. In high school, it was nothing like this. There were like 1,000 people there at the most. Once we got things rolling, everyone got into it, and we ended up finishing strong.” — Kurt Kittner