Asmussen: Spartans own Illini in football

On Illinois
— No need to tell you ...

Papa Del’s was jammed Saturday night, with all the alums craving their favorite pizza.

Sears wasn’t going to survive in Champaign. Tradition and nostalgia lose out to cost. Sadly.

Michigan State owns Illinois on the football field. And with the teams playing only twice each decade, the dominance might be permanent. At least it feels that way.

— Boring, plodding, painful-to-watch Michigan State did it again Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Seven years later, the Spartans continue to get even for Ron Zook’s team celebrating a breakthrough win in East Lansing.

No chance it was going to happen again. No chance the Spartans were going to let Illinois end a disturbing Big Ten losing streak at their expense. If Illinois wants to get even, John Groce’s team needs to pull off a stunner against Tom Izzo during the basketball season.

Illinois football isn’t ready for that kind of fight. The 3-1 start seems like decades ago, back when Sears was a retail giant.

Illinois coach Tim Beckman was asked where his team goes from here.

“That’s kind of a silly question to me,” Beckman said. “You’ve got five games left. We’re 3-4. We’re not 0-7. We’ve felt success.”

What is it going to take for Illinois to get over the Big Ten hump?

“As a team, we have to start believing a little bit more,” offensive lineman Corey Lewis said. “Just believe that we’re good. As soon as we start believing more, the better off we’ll be.”

Two years with no wins in the Big Ten will do major damage to your beliefs and confidence.

“I think it is a little bit harder,” Lewis said. “We have to get a lot better at it. As a senior, I know I believe. I’ve just got to get everybody to buy in with what’s going on. Every game left on our schedule is a winnable game.”

Dwelling on the past is counterproductive. And impossible to avoid. Step outside the sanctity of the locker room and the streak is a hot topic.

“We have a 24-hour rule,” Lewis said. “We think about it, and we’ve just got to get over it. We’ve got to brush it off and move forward.”

Their faces showed their frustration. Heads shaking. Not in a good way.

“All you can really do is come out and work harder,” receiver Spencer Harris said. “You can’t point fingers at defense or offense or special teams. You’ve got to join as one and come to work tomorrow.”

The schedule hasn’t helped. Opening the league season against Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State did not suit this team’s needs. A win, any win, against a Big Ten team becomes more difficult each weekend.

They can lose them all this season. The best chance for a win could be the trip to Purdue. But as has been pointed out, the Boilermakers see the Illini the same way.

The missing ingredients are starting to grow. The inability to bounce back from mistakes. The dearth of cleverness to capitalize on the rare turnovers they force. The lack of discipline to avoid disastrous penalties. A holding call cost them a critical touchdown Saturday, one that could have turned the game against offensively challenged Michigan State.

For years, the Spartans will talk about the 99-yard drive that cemented the win. And they should. Brag about it to recruits. But know it had more to do with Illini ineptness than Spartan success.

— Beckman has got a lot more questions to answer. What’s wrong with the defense? Where was the imaginative offense? How much does the losing streak hinder plans? What kind of recruits can be drawn to the program?

Because recruiting is the answer to the lifelong Illinois football struggle. You win when you have the best players. Character and academics and community involvement are all good. It is commendable that the coach cares. But yards and touchdowns and defensive stops and takeaways and wins are what matter to the folks shivering in the stands. If you want them back next time out and next year, you need to do more. Give them a reason to stay beyond halftime. Show them that you won’t do the predictable and lose again to Michigan State.

On the Big Ten
— Hard to believe how quickly and how harshly Northwestern has fallen.
After Saturday’s overtime loss to Iowa, Northwestern is .500. And with games left against Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State, a bowl game is no longer a lock.

Once again, Pat Fitzgerald is going to be reminded of the tenuous nature of success in Evanston. You can win the battles but not the war. Unless he wants to continue fighting with less talent on hand, Fitz should consider a move. If he makes himself available, the takers will be lined up around the block. He is a competitive guy and at some point is going to tire of the disadvantages he has at Northwestern. It is a great school and a wonderful place to live. But it remains a second-tier football destination. Now and forever.

— Time to restart the Bo Pelini watch in Lincoln. Losing to UCLA is OK. Losing to Minnesota doesn’t cut it in the land of corn and cattle.

That loud noise you heard from the West on Saturday afternoon was about 1.5 million Nebraskans swearing. Something like “Dadgummit.” Yes, they are angry, but politeness comes first.

If Pelini is fired, who will be his replacement? Check no further than the staff at Oregon. Specifically, offensive coordinator Scott Frost. The former Nebraska quarterback, who led the team to a national title, would have plenty of support in his home state. And the money to buy the best defensive coordinator in the country.

Nebraska has been burned by turning to assistant coaches in the past. Frost is different. Like when the school hired Tom Osborne to replace Bob Devaney. How did that one work out?

— Kudos (Loren Tate term) to Minnesota for becoming bowl eligible with a bunch of games left.

Jerry Kill was back in the coaching box Saturday, and that worked again. The staff at Minnesota is so in sync that there won’t be any problems with Kill helping out as he gets his medical condition fixed. The work by the Gophers the last two weeks speaks well for Kill’s organizational skills. Nobody panicked. They simply did their jobs.

Minnesota will be a nice story for one of the Big Ten’s bowl partners. The Gophers are in much better shape than Nebraska, which will be reduced to a third-tier bowl.

On the rest
— Miami didn’t help its “We deserve a shot at the title” argument Saturday. Not with a close win against Wake Forest. The Hurricanes needed to drill the Demon Deacons.

Maybe it was natural after the reprieve from the NCAA earlier in the week. And maybe they are looking ahead to Florida State. Play like that against the Seminoles and they are going to lose by 40.

— Hopefully, Mark Stoops’ brothers Bob and Mike warned him “there will be days like this.” That’s what brothers are supposed to do.

Mark Stoops, in his first year at impossible-to-fix Kentucky, fell to 1-6 on Thursday with a 28-22 loss at Mississippi State. Bad enough that he had to go to perfectly named Starkville to drop to 0-4 in the SEC.

The guess here is that Stoops finishes 2-10 in his first try at the SEC. There are losses coming against Missouri, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Tennessee. All other schools see the Wildcats as the Purdue of the SEC. Bowl bids will be secured at Stoops’ expense.

Basketball can’t get here soon enough. There is no chance football ever takes over for basketball as the school’s sport of choice. Remember, Bear Bryant once left the place. Football hasn’t been the same since.

— The college football world is changing in the West. No better proof of that than BYU’s easy win Friday night against Boise State. Considered a BCS threat going into the season, the once-powerful Broncos fell to 5-3. They lost their first October game in 12 years, a streak of 50 games.

Though he’s got a never-heard-it-before first name, BYU quarterback Taysom Hill can throw the rock. He had three touchdown passes and ran for a fourth score. The sophomore is another in a long line of fancy-passing Cougars.

BYU showed it can play a little defense, too, forcing four Boise State turnovers.
BYU now has six wins and will go bowling. Not so sure about Boise State, which looks vulnerable in a way that hasn’t been seen in years.
 

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