BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The large American flag flapped in the background and night had descended upon Memorial Stadium by the time Tim Beckman jogged off the turf.
The Illinois coach slowed to a walk as he neared his team’s locker room in the north end zone after watching Illinois lose 52-35 on Saturday evening in front of 44,882 fans.
Blank faces from his players and fellow coaches accompanied him into the locker room. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas slapped players’ backs and extended handshakes. With as much enthusiasm as he could muster.
Illinois won’t come back to Bloomington for at least the next six years. Who knows if this was Beckman’s only time at the Hoosiers’ home facility.
The Big Ten losing streak is now at 19 games.
No sign of when that unsightly trend will stop.
A second straight year with no bowl game seems likely.
No sign of when that trend will stop, either.
“It’s tough,” a calm Beckman said with team photos of all the bowl teams Indiana has had situated behind him in the depths of Memorial Stadium. “There’s no question about that. We’ve got three opportunities left. I was happy to see the way that we played on offense. Defensively, we gave up too many big plays of course.”
Raise your hand if you’ve heard that one before. The common theme of how Illinois fares against Big Ten teams was easy to identify. Once again.
Move the ball well with Nathan Scheelhaase directing Bill Cubit’s offense.
Fail to stop the opposing offense and make several Hoosiers look like All-Big Ten performers.
“We just fell short in that scoring battle,” Beckman said. “There was never a quit in them on the sidelines. They are disappointed, as we all are disappointed.”
Disappointed. Frustrated. Dejected. Upset. Unhappy.
Pick any unsavory adjective. Illinois is trying to avoid those feelings of despair much like it avoided tackling anyone at Indiana.
“It’s definitely not easy,” running back Josh Ferguson said. “The game itself is not easy, but this is hard. We’ve got to keep fighting and just keep going.”
No matter what plays Cubit calls, the season-long defensive struggles Illinois has had won’t help the Illini emerge with a win. Not anytime soon.
“Our mentality, and Coach Cubit has really done a great job helping us out with that, is we’ve got really one job, and every time we step out on the field is to move the ball and put points on the board,” said Scheelhaase, who was 38 of 57 for 450 passing yards, all career highs. “I think for some of us it’s an adjustment when you come off a year where you’re really struggling on offense of switching over to that mind-set of we have high expectations when we go out there. It’s not an overnight thing. I thought our defense gave us plenty of opportunities to go out there and capitalize. We did it sometimes but not enough.”
Not enough stops. Not enough points. All factors that added up to a fifth straight loss for Illinois, which has had seven such losing streaks of that nature in the last decade.
“I haven’t been through anything like this in my life either,” Beckman said. “These players are very, very important to me, and they will always be very important to me. This coaching staff is very important to me. I want to see them successful in the worst way, but I do know we still have a young football team that needs to continue to mature.”
Right tackle Corey Lewis agreed.
“Sometimes you just see a young team come out in us where we shoot ourselves in the foot and don’t capitalize on certain things,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to fight, continue to work hard each week and prepare.”
Lots of points. Lots of bad defense. And lots of unsatisfied feelings for Illinois to nurse on the three-hour bus ride back to Champaign on Saturday night. Illinois kept the game close into the fourth quarter for the second straight week, but the Illini failed to make crucial plays at crucial times. That’s what separates teams that are planning bowl trips from teams that are planning for 2014. Illinois falls into the latter category after its 19th straight Big Ten loss despite 612 yards of offense and another superb performance from Nathan Scheelhaase.
What it means
Illinois has to win out if it wants to go bowling. Those chances appear bleak after it failed to stop Indiana’s offense on numerous occasions in front of a half-full Memorial Stadium.
Ohio State. Gulp. Urban Meyer’s team will come into Champaign well rested after having Saturday off. The Buckeyes are playing for more than just a Jan. 1 bowl game. More like a shot at the national title. Braxton Miller & Co. have the pieces in place to make that happen. And maybe put up 1,000 yards of offense if they really want to pour it on. Illinois has played the Buckeyes well in the 21st century in Champaign. Its six losses have come by a combined 45 points. But the two programs are on completely different paths right now.
Tevin Coleman, Indiana
Cody Latimer, Indiana
Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois