Tate: Beckman deserves credit
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Saturday’s game wasn’t a work of art. To be honest, it was downright ugly on a frigid, sparsely attended day.
But mark it down. This beats losing.
Bill Cubit’s Illini offense played tight and coughed up four turnovers. Two would-be touchdowns were negated on consecutive fourth-quarter plays requiring reviews.
But it’s a win — 20-16 against hapless Purdue — and the monkey is off Tim Beckman’s back. A week after Beckman and Cubit had a minor sideline squabble, Cubit presented the game ball to the head coach and accompanied it with a hug.
There were hugs all around. This has been a rough patch ... 20 Big Ten games, the last 14 under Beckman. All losses and frequently blowouts.
And through it all, the Illini seniors — with leaders Nathan Scheelhaase and Jonathan Brown coming off injury-plagued seasons — persevered.
Driving the vets
Sometimes, when seasons are going down the drain, coaches chuck it and institute a youth movement. Build for the future. Forget the seniors.
Some of that may be taking place at Purdue ... a raw freshman (Danny Etling) installed at quarterback, several teenagers giving up redshirts recently to gain experience. Illinois took advantage and held Purdue without a point on the last 10 possessions.
When critics wonder how the Illini have stuck together in such a long nosedive, the performance of these seniors is the go-to indicator.
Scheelhaase bounced back from a four-TD season in 2012 and leads the Big Ten in passing yards (2,965) and total offense (3,181). After a slow start, converted receiver Steve Hull has rocketed up among the league’s Top 5 in yardage (169 on 10 catches Saturday) ... center Jake Feldmeyer has joined Corey Lewis in the offensive line ... Brown is the leading tackler ... and so on.
Ten of them have made major contributions in a final season that would be demoralizing for athletes with less character. As a matter of fact, we are just a year removed from a senior class with vastly more talent, but one that did not come close to expectations.
So, yes, Beckman made the correct decision in sticking with his beleaguered veterans, and it finally paid off Saturday at Purdue.
Turning it around
Who would have guessed that a defensive unit, ranked 114th in the country, would rise up after permitting two quick Purdue touchdowns and shut down the Boilermakers the rest of the way. Purdue managed five first downs in the last three quarters.
“We wanted this game so bad,” Cubit said, “and we didn’t play as loose as we can. We didn’t execute. Our timing was off in our screen game. We’re asking Nathan and Josh (Ferguson, 115 yards rushing) to do an awful lot.”
It seemed as though the Illini played not to lose and in some cases couldn’t get out of their own way. The Illini lost two fumbles, and Scheelhaase, who completed 24 of 30 for 257 yards, had two interceptions.
“That’s football,” Cubit said. “We made our field goal opportunities, and Purdue didn’t. Our seniors came through. We never considered doing it any other way. These players have short careers, and they deserve to play. I’ve been with a lot of great coaches, and the goal has always been to win the next game.”
Right at home
Saturday’s win quiets, at least temporarily, the Beckman doubters. And at the risk of being overly optimistic, it creates a new beginning that could be positive for the fans who venture to Memorial Stadium.
In the last 80 years, Illinois has posted one 11-game win streak at home, that running through the 1983-84 seasons under Mike White. This is mentioned because, beginning with Northwestern next Saturday, the Illini will play 11 consecutive home games in which they should be competitive or favored.
The 2014 home slate offers Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, Texas State, Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa and Penn State, and the 2015 campaign begins with Kent State, Western Illinois and Middle Tennessee.
This is not to suggest that Illinois will sweep the four conferences foes, but it’s also true that these four are not the Big Ten’s strongest members.
What lies ahead are 11 home opportunities for the Beckman forces to gain momentum and show enough improvement to bring discouraged fans back into their accustomed seats.
As for the road games, it’s the opposite of 2013, and the Illini will probably be underdogs against Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and, we’ll see, Northwestern.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.