UI 20, Purdue 16: 'What a great feeling'
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The sullen looks.
The despondent stares.
The barely audible monotone voices.
The postgame scene the Illinois football team has had the last six games was gone Saturday after a 20-16 win at Purdue.
Instead, smiles, jokes, man hugs and huge sighs of relief were present for Tim Beckman’s Illini.
“This game was not about Tim Beckman or about this coaching staff or anything like that,” Beckman said a few feet away from where loud hip-hop music played in the visitors’ locker room. “It was about this program. It was about these seniors and what they’re willing to do to continue to be positive and push this football team to achieve things. They were able to achieve (Saturday).”
Achieve a win, yes. Achieve a win easily? Not so much.
But Illinois will take it. Any way. For a team riding a 20-game Big Ten losing streak going into Saturday, any victory is one to cherish.
“I’m happy for these players,” Beckman said. “If you’re in this game for the right reasons, you’re in this game to coach football players. I’ve been around this game for 48 years. I was raised in this game. Seeing the kids crying and filled with emotion after a victory, that’s what athletics is about.”
Talk of the Big Ten losing streak is no more. Or having the nation’s longest conference losing streak. Kentucky and its 15-game SEC skid now holds that badge of dishonor.
“Unfortunately, we kind of forgot what this feeling was in conference play lately,” wide receiver Steve Hull said. “To get this win is so special to the seniors and the rest of this team. Continuing the momentum now is going to be essential to carry on to next season.”
For the Illinois recruiting classes of 2012 and 2013, Saturday’s victory was the first Big Ten win they have enjoyed. Since they arrived on campus. That’s a long time.
A point not lost on sophomore linebacker Mason Monheim.
“It feels good to finally get that streak over with,” Monheim said. “To be able to get a win for our seniors and our team, hopefully we can end 2-0 on the season.”
If Nathan Scheelhaase (24 of 30, 257 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions) can avoid the costly turnovers, if Josh Ferguson can produce the same way in the run game (career-high 115 yards on 20 carries), if Hull keeps up his steady production and if the defense plays the way it did for the final three quarters, don’t count out a win against Northwestern. Words hardly anyone would have uttered before Big Ten play started.
“We finally ended that drought and made (the seniors) feel like all the efforts they’ve put in here, which is a lot, aren’t all for nothing,” left tackle Simon Cvijanovic said. “We know we’re working hard. With how hard guys are playing, we know (wins) are going to come.”
They get one more chance this fall for a win. Illinois hasn’t finished the season with at least two straight victories since the 1999 team won its final four games.
“We made plays in crucial situations,” Scheelhaase said. “It wasn’t perfect by any means. It wasn’t the prettiest win by any means, but ... any time you’re doing that consistently throughout the game, you give yourselves a chance to win.”
Purdue rolled out its Big Bass Drum. Illinois rolled out its Big Bass Defense. After the first quarter. Drew Brees, who doesn’t make many trips back to West Lafayette because, well, he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, must have fired up Purdue early. Perhaps both offenses. Neither team had much luck moving the ball after the first quarter. Illinois’ defense didn’t allow a point for the final three quarters. Granted, it was against the league’s worst offensive team. But embattled defensive coordinator Tim Banks can breathe — a bit — after Illinois did not allow Purdue’s offense a score on its final 10 possessions.
What it means
Illinois can beat a bad football team. Barely. The Boilermakers won’t keep the Purdue Cannon this year. Probably won’t win at Indiana next week. Illinois took the cannon back home to Champaign-Urbana for the first time since 2001, with Spencer Harris toting it off the field and into the cramped-but-joyous visiting locker room.
“It was a great feeling,” Harris said. “When I was running off, I met Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina sitting there waiting. They gave it to me. What a great feeling to get a Big Ten win. God, we needed that bad.”
Senior Day for Illinois. Last game of the season. Not the last game of Tim Beckman’s tenure at Illinois. Saturday’s win ensures the head coach will don his visor next season. Mike Thomas does not need to come out and publicly say so. Illinois, while not going to a bowl game, has doubled its win total from last year and has a good chance of finishing 5-7. A first down late at Penn State and the above sentence might say finishing 6-6 and playing for a possible bowl game appearance. The season will come to a close against Northwestern, but the Beckman era will reach its third year.
Steve Hull, Illinois
Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois
Jonathan Brown, Illinois