Tate: Beckman's back to the wall
Even though the masses of Illini Nation don’t have a vote, there is a popular referendum ongoing whether Tim Beckman needs to defeat Purdue on Saturday to retain his job.
If put to a vote, there are two basic points of view:
(1) From a purely philosophical standpoint, every head football coach deserves at least three years ... and to be fair, four. Since Bob Zuppke started his 29-year reign in 1913, the only Illini coach limited to three seasons was Gary Moeller, who went 6-24-3 in 1977-79. Beckman is 5-17.
(2) The 20-game Big Ten losing streak is weighing heavily on Beckman’s shoulders, and the defensive shortcomings — for which he is directly responsible — have reached historic proportions. Win-now critics don’t believe he can reverse the slide.
Bordering on helplessness, Illinois is giving up 493.5 yards per game, which is 114th out of 123 FBS teams. The defense has permitted five 200-yard rushers, including Penn State’s Bill Belton (201), Indiana’s Tevin Coleman (215) and Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde (246) in the last three games. No Illini team ever permitted so many 200-yarders before.
That brings us to Purdue. Opening with a 42-7 loss at Cincinnati (Illinois beat the Bearcats 45-17), the Boilermakers have been inept in the extreme. OK, they challenged Notre Dame before losing 31-24, but they did not take a snap in the red zone (opponent’s 20-yard line) in consecutive games against Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State. The Boilermakers have four rushing TDs this season and are averaging 65 yards on the ground. Their overall loss streak of eight is longer than the Illinois slide of six.
Pressure to produce
The Illini have flashed enough offense to be favored by a touchdown Saturday, and they desperately need to prevail to clear the air of Beckman dismissal scuttlebutt. If they fall short, the likelihood of carrying the Big Ten losing streak through the Northwestern finale grows stronger. And that scenario would put athletic director Mike Thomas under pressure from mounting unhappiness in the ranks.
UI attendance is falling precipitously. It took throngs of Ohio State followers, including the Buckeyes’ band, to bring the UI’s announced attendance to 44,095 Saturday, and fans in red far outnumbered the home folks when Hyde broke the last two TD runs in a 60-35 romp. It was the lowest turnout for an OSU-UI game in 35 years. With Northwestern also struggling, and with the weather turning cold, the turnstile count for the Nov. 30 home windup will be well below the tickets-sold allocation.
In West Lafayette, despite their team’s frequent failures, Old Gold and Black fans have become accustomed to punishing Illinois. They have reason to expect success based on these stats: In football, Purdue has lost at home to Illinois once since 1994 and has won 10 of the last 13 overall. When almost nothing is at stake, Purdue wins.
In men’s basketball, Purdue has enjoyed nine- and eight-game win streaks against Illinois (dating to Brian Cardinal) and is 11-4 since the UI’s Dee Brown graduated. Women’s basketball borders on unfair competition, the Boilermakers prevailing in 44 of the last 49 meetings.
The good and the bad
In analyzing Beckman’s two-year operation, the swings in performance have been stunning and disconcerting.
Overnight, the defense tumbled from No. 7 in 2011 to the depths in 2012 (Northwestern racked 50 in the finale) and even worse in 2013. Meanwhile, V’Angelo Bentley’s 67-yard punt return Saturday provided more evidence that special teams has taken a step forward, and Bill Cubit’s offense is operating at a 425-yard clip. Taking on a schedule that includes the top four teams in the Big Ten — Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Nebraska — the Illini rank No. 3 in first downs (22.7) in conference games. The tougher post-September schedule hasn’t diminished production.
From a national perspective, the Illini stand No. 25 in aerial yards per game (288.8), a jump of 82 positions from 2012. That’s an 82-team climb in a lineup of 123. They have made similar jumps in total offense, pass efficiency and scoring (from 16.7 to 30.2).
From all indications, Cubit’s offense appears on a steady, productive run despite an abnormally thin offensive line and modest ground punch. Four of five starting linemen return in 2014. But if an improved offense deserves praise, the question blares: What can Beckman do about a defense that is woefully weak? Is this unit salvageable under current coordinator Tim Banks in 2014? How many holes need to be filled?
Based on early recruiting returns, there doesn’t appear to be much help on the way. But of 29 defenders listed on this week’s UI depth chart, the only seniors are starters Tim Kynard and Jonathan Brown and reserve Ben Mathis. With a year of growth, the 26 returnees should add muscle and bring a degree of improvement in 2014.
But how much? And might there be a better way, as Cubit has demonstrated on offense, for them to go about their business? Is Beckman the right man to handle this overhaul or are we simply waiting for a third year to prove that he isn’t?
Saturday’s Battle for the Bottom — Illinois vs. Purdue — will offer more fuel for the fire. Another loss is not acceptable.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.