STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — A few Illinois coaches and staff members made their way onto the Beaver Stadium grass more than two hours before kickoff Saturday morning.
Most took photos on their smart phones of the impressive venue from field level.
Capturing the moment. Soaking in the scene. Cherishing the quiet of the stadium before the raucous atmosphere of 95,131 fans made their way in.
They might have made for nice mantelpieces to reflect back on years from now.
Instead, Illinois didn’t head back to Champaign on Saturday evening celebrating that long-awaited Big Ten win.
An 18-game conference losing streak, the longest in program history, is staring Illinois square in the face after Penn State outlasted the Illini 24-17 in overtime.
“This defeat’s definitely a tough one,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “Everybody hates losing, and there’s nothing good about losing, but I do hope that they have a sense of confidence of who they are and what they’ve done with this team. I hope that they learned that they can be successful because that’s what we’re fighting right now.”
More than six hours after Illinois made its initial appearance on the Beaver Stadium grass, though, the Illini had the Penn State student section up in arms.
And the possibility of a Big Ten win seemed realistic.
Mike Svetina forced a fumble near the goal line, which Houston Bates recovered at the 2 with Illinois leading 17-14 and less than four minutes left in the game.
Linebacker Jonathan Brown ran past the goal line with his right pointer finger up to his mouth, wanting to silence all the students who were hurling insults in the direction of the Illinois defense.
“It was a great feeling,” Brown said. “Second week in a row we pitched a stop on the goal line and caused a fumble. (The atmosphere) added to it, but the biggest thing was, I felt us as a unit, we stood up and did what we had to do.”
For a fleeting moment, the swagger and assured nature of a successful team was evident. But only for a moment.
“We can’t really control who’s doubting us and what they’re saying,” said Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois’ quarterback who set a career high by completing 33 of his 52 pass attempts for 321 yards. “All we can control is us. It was a blast being out there with my friends and competing at a high level.”
Beckman now has lost his first 12 Big Ten games. That dubious distinction leaves him tied with former Northwestern coach Dennis Green for the second-longest conference losing streak by a coach at the start of his tenure at a Big Ten school.
Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez lost his first 14 league games in 1990 and ’91 before he turned the Badgers into perennial Rose Bowl contenders.
“I know (against Michigan State), we weren’t as competitive as we’d like to be,” Beckman said. “These players do what you ask them to do. It’s not anything special. It (isn’t) anything that’s a formula that Coach Beckman came up with. It’s a formula of what these players came up with. They fight.”
Down 14-3 at halftime, two touchdowns from Josh Ferguson catapulted Illinois in front of the Nittany Lions 17-14 with less than six minutes left in the fourth quarter.
“I complimented the kids because it was the first time I actually saw where they were so determined,” Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “Before it was sometimes hope, but this one here, they were so determined at halftime. I told them I was so proud to be around them because that’s the first time I saw 100 percent of the kids doing it.”
Illinois needs to go 3-1 the rest of the way to make a bowl game — a difficult task considering the program’s struggles in the Big Ten.
“We’re going to get that ‘W’,” Beckman said. “It’s going to come, and it’s going to come this year.”