CHAMPAIGN — Some shed tears.
A few walked slowly. Heads down. Shoulders slumped.
Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas was there, doling out handshakes and hugs when needed before the Illinois players jogged or walked into the locker room.
When the 15 seniors who were honored prior to Saturday’s 37-34 home loss against Northwestern return again to Champaign, they’ll do so as spectators.
“Weird,” quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said after he completed 33 of 45 passes for 307 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in his 48th and final game at Illinois. “I’ve been in every single part of it. I’ve seen everything. All of a sudden, I’ll be detached and only see what everybody else sees. It’ll be tough, I’m sure, to get adjusted to. This hasn’t been what defines me but made me who I was, and now it’ll be something new I’m adjusting to. Next year will be crazy not to be a member of this football team.”
Corey Lewis handed out elbow pads and Nick Forzley distributed his gloves to young fans in their final game at Memorial Stadium, brightening their faces. But there was no brightening the mood for Illinois after Saturday’s season-ending defeat.
“My whole career here at Illinois is coming to an end,” linebacker Jonathan Brown said. “That’s something you talk about, but it’s not really real to you until it actually happens. I enjoyed the ride, so that’s really what I’m trying to process.”
The next Illinois football game is 273 days away. Steve Hull won’t play in it, but he’ll watch with anticipation. To see if the program, like Tim Beckman has said all season, moves forward.
“We’re really excited to watch the games and see who steps up to be that leader and go-to guy,” the wide receiver said. “When we see that, it will be a sign of great maturity by the rest of the guys. I just really wish this team continues to be resilient and tough and persevere. I think this team can continue to improve year in and year out.”
The announced attendance was 37,058, but maybe one-half of that total was in the stands at kickoff and maybe one-fourth of that total was in the stands at the final whistle.
Despite the low turnout, Beckman’s program is in better shape at the end of this season compared with last year, according to the Illinois coach.
“In every facet of this program we’ve gotten better,” Beckman said. “We challenged this football team to progress. If they don’t want to accept that challenge, well, then they’re probably not going to be here. We’re going to take this program one step further each and every day and make it better.”
He’ll do so without names like Scheelhaase, Brown and Hull, among others. The senior class spent its first two seasons going to bowl games. And its last two missing out on bowl games.
“Each one of those young men put their lives into this last year to try to build this program that was at the bottom,” Beckman said. “They did a great job, I thought, this year of competing. Sorry for the senior class because I wanted them to be as successful as they possibly could. As we talked to each one of those guys, we talked about what they’ve done ... and (of) bringing an attitude of competing and the attitude of making this program better in everything they do.”
Scheelhaase evoked a bit of John Groce when assessing future teams at Illinois.
“The first thing that you want to talk about is just the mentality of togetherness,” he said. “That’s so important. As I’ve watched this program through the years, when that’s there, things are usually clicking. When that’s not, there’s a little bit of (uncertainty).”
Uncertainty will hinge on some staff members, notably defensive coordinator Tim Banks, of their future at Illinois. The heat and pressure will fall on Beckman’s shoulders to avoid a third straight losing season under his watch in 2014. Easier said than done.
“We’ve got to win more football games,” Beckman said. “We all understand that. We all know it’s about the (wins).”