CHAMPAIGN — The bowl game aspirations are still intact.
Really, they are. Even if Illinois looked far from a bowl-worthy team during multiple stretches Saturday night.
The Big Ten losing streak is still intact.
The second woebegone anecdote has to stop before the first one takes shape.
All that is taking shape for Illinois, when it pertains to Big Ten play, is losing.
Sixteen straight conference defeats are attached to Illinois’ name after Wisconsin bullied the Illini 56-32 in front of 47,362 under the lights at Memorial Stadium. That figure was most likely cut in half by the time the fourth quarter started, with a contingent of Wisconsin fans taking up nearly two full sections in the upper deck of the East balcony and sticking around.
“We’ve got a ways to go, no question,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “I don’t think that there’s questions in these kids’ minds that ... we’ve got to take the next step.”
At least it’s not the longest losing streak in the country. Kansas still holds that distinction after losing its 24th straight Big 12 game on Saturday to Oklahoma.
But there are few encouraging signs Illinois will end the dry spell soon.
The first-quarter problems.
The lack of tackling.
The inability to prevent touchdowns early in the second half. All three losses this season have seen the Illini give up touchdowns on the first possession after halftime.
“You can’t miss tackles,” Beckman said. “We didn’t tackle well in space again. They’ve got a couple good backs and they’ve made people look that way all year long.”
When questioned earlier in the week, Beckman said team morale wasn’t a worry.
“We’re not having a morale problem,” he said. “Not at all. The kids ... realize that it’s still early in the season. There’s no morale problem here.
We’ve made tremendous strides from last year already. They understand that this is progress, and progress has been made.”
Maybe so, depending on one’s perspective, but the halfway point of the season is upon Illinois. The window to play past its Nov. 30 regular season home finale against Northwestern is shrinking with each loss.
“We know that right now it’s like going in at half 0-0,” Beckman said. “We’re tied at the midway point.”
The offense found life. Only after Wisconsin found itself with a 21-0 lead in the game’s first 10 minutes. And in the second half. Only after Illinois trailed 42-17 late in the third quarter.
“Offensively we didn’t start the way we needed to,” Beckman said. “We’ve got to be able to move the ball.”
And injuries, a bugaboo Illinois has avoided most of the season, cropped up. V’Angelo Bentley and his promising kick returns went to the bench early in the first quarter. He had a boot on his left foot by game’s end. Miles Osei suffered a concussion in the first half, causing a reshuffling in the return games. Steve Hull, who had a career-high six catches for 105 yards, missed a few plays in the third quarter after getting hit in the head. Fellow wide receiver Ryan Lankford limped to the sidelines in the third quarter as well.
“We got some guys dinged up in this football game,” Beckman said. “
Heck, even the video replay reviews went against Illinois. A 1-yard touchdown run by Aaron Bailey was overturned late in the third quarter when Bailey’s knee hit the turf before the ball crossed the goal line.
All in all, a forgettable night for a program still searching for a signature win in Beckman’s tenure.
“We played a good football team,” Beckman said. “When you’re playing a team like that, you’ve got to be clicking on all cylinders. I didn’t see anybody quitting or anything like that. This team at least fights. They’ll fight to the end.”
Melvin Gordon will make a hefty NFL paycheck sometime soon. The beleaguered Illinois defense did what it has done against quality teams so far this season. Which is not much. Nathan Scheelhaase atoned for his first-quarter foibles with some nice deep passes late in the first half to make it competitive at least, but the Badgers were too talented for the Illini. At least Illinois didn’t fold, like it did in similar games last year, giving the fans who braved the chilly temperatures a reason to stick around after the Marching Illini performed at halftime. But not for long. Gordon and James White made sure the parking lots started to clear out before the fourth quarter started.
What it means
First losing streak of the season. First time Illinois left its home venue with a loss this season. First signs of adversity. Tim Beckman will stress positivity in the next six days before another respectable Big Ten foe arrives. He has to. But if the inconsistent nature Illinois exhibited on Saturday night continues to flare up, his words will start to ring hollow. One can point to the ability of Illinois to weather an early Wisconsin barrage, but, at some point, the Big Ten wins have to happen. And they haven’t yet for Beckman, who became the first Illinois coach in program history to lose his first 10 Big Ten games with Saturday night’s setback.
Probably not another all-orange wardrobe for Illinois. And one of the nation’s strongest defenses. Mark Dantonio and his Spartans will make the trek to Champaign for the first time since 2009. Not exactly the homecoming opponent you want to have. Sparty is already bowl eligible. A few questionable pass interference calls and lackluster quarterback play are the only things keeping Michigan State from coming to Memorial Stadium with a 7-0 record. Illinois hasn’t beaten Michigan State in Champaign since 1992. If Tim Banks’ defense lets an average Michigan State offense get on track, the drought should continue.
Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
Joel Stave, Wisconsin
James White, Wisconsin