Tate: Illini have fallen - can they get up?
CHAMPAIGN — Experts have pondered, without success, an age-old problem: How do you put Humpty Dumpty together after the fall? How do you revive spirits that have been shattered.
That’s the problem facing UI coach Tim Beckman today.
The 42-3 loss to Michigan State presented another fourth quarter so meaningless that it essentially eased the traffic problem by clearing Memorial Stadium in early shifts.
Students cleared out of the north end zone section as though it was a fire drill. The fans must have thought gold had been discovered in the parking lots. And except for fun-loving band members, there was no fight left in the Fighting Illini.
From the moment Michigan State’s top-rated defense rebuffed Illinois twice at the 1-yard line, the inspired visitors were never stopped. They overwhelmed the homecoming hosts on five withering possessions before kneeling to run out the clock.
Here are obligatory numbers: Michigan State controlled 39 of 60 minutes, converted 14 of 16 third-down opportunities and protected Connor Cook so well that the Spartans quarterback, erratic a week earlier in a 14-0 defeat of Purdue, completed 15 of 16 passes. Illinois was outrushed 269 to 25.
I’m still wondering
Since last summer, my every response to the question, “What do you expect from the Illini this season?” was simply: It depends, in my opinion, how they are able to survive three physical beatings and assumed losses against Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Now we’re all wondering: How do you bring them back after they’ve slipped over the edge?
Whatever you might want to say about Nebraska’s leaky defense or Michigan State’s previously inconsistent offense, these Big Ten rivals are physical in the extreme. They don’t always win, but they pound away and hand out punishment. The Illini lost cornerback V’Angelo Bentley and receiver Steve Hull a week ago (they’ll be back) and probably saw the last of their fastest receiver, Ryan Lankford, on Saturday (shoulder).
So the Illini, having allowed 39, 56 and 42 points in these games, must somehow regain lost confidence as they face road tests against beatable rivals Penn State and Indiana the next two Saturdays.
There is historical reason to be concerned. Disappointing teams often tend to drift in November. In the past decade, Illinois is 12-48 in the last six games of the regular season, and that includes the 4-2 finish in 2007. The Big Ten losing streak is at 17.
The coaches understand the monumental task.
Said Beckman: “We have to regather, learn from this and go forward. We can’t have penalties and mistakes.”
It is true, though it wouldn’t have mattered in the long run, that Illinois had the Spartans gasping before a couple of hurtful boomerangs: (1) Nathan Scheelhaase had a TD nullified when center Alex Hill was called for holding, (2) Lankford fumbled on a double reverse that set up Michigan State’s first TD and (3) a promising UI drive was halted at the 1-yard line, setting in motion a 99-yard Spartan assault that ended when UI freshman Jaylen Dunlap deflected Cook’s 29-yard pass into the arms of senior receiver Bennie Fowler.
End of story. It was all downhill from there.
Nothing to show
Reflecting afterward, Illini defensive end Houston Bates spoke of the common thread connecting the last three losses:
“We couldn’t stop the run. They just kept coming after us with the same plays in the second half, and we couldn’t stop them. From this point, we have to look forward to playing the game we love and send the seniors out with wins. I think we will.”
Tim Banks is backed to the wall.
“Stopping the run has been a challenge all year,” the defensive coordinator said. “We did some good things early and we made a couple of big plays (two sacks) before the half, and then they hit that deflected pass (that made it 14-3).
“We have to keep the disappointment of today from affecting the next game. We will try to find some positives and point them out.”
All the appropriate words won’t change one fact: Illinois got hammered again Saturday, and losses take a toll.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.