Matt Daniels: Beckman seeks Chicago game
CHAMPAIGN — An Illinois football game at Soldier Field again.
Or Wrigley Field. Even U.S. Cellular Field.
Nothing is concrete about the possibility of the Illini playing a future regular season game in Chicago. But if Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas ever wants to again, Tim Beckman supports the idea whole-heartedly.
“Would love to,” the Illinois coach said. “I know there’s things that have to be settled. I’ve talked to Mike briefly about this. Again, we’re playing these things for our student-athletes. Just like bowl games, they’re experiences that reward the hard work. The experience of playing at Soldier Field is an unbelievable one for those kids. It was for me, too. I thought it was cool because I had never coached there, either.”
Illinois has played in Chicago twice in the last four seasons, losing 34-24 to Washington last September at Soldier Field and defeating Northwestern 48-27 in 2010 at Wrigley Field. At the moment, Illinois doesn’t have a neutral-site game on any of its future schedules. If Illinois decides to go that route, Chicago or St. Louis are likely destinations. Of the 33 neutral-site games Illinois has played in its history — boasting a 9-21-3 record in such games — those two cities are the most popular, with the Illini playing 10 games in St. Louis (eight against Missouri) and eight games in Chicago (against six different opponents).
Illinois has had practices each of the last two springs in Chicago at Gately Stadium, and expect the trend to continue if Beckman is at the helm.
“Kids don’t always get to do those things,” Beckman said. “I like that stuff. That’s part of the experiences that you’re trying to give student-athletes.”
So is playing in bowl games. With a more favorable nonconference schedule (Washington is likely the only game Illinois will go into as an underdog) and a friendlier Big Ten home schedule in 2014, playing in the postseason isn’t a far-fetched notion.
“Last year’s schedule, if you looked at it, was extremely difficult early when you’re playing Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State back-to-back-to-back,” Beckman said. “Then you’ve got a team like Cincinnati, which I was very proud of how we played. I thought it was possibly the best game we’ve played since I’ve been here.”
Working out for a cause
Summer workouts can get mundane for the Illinois football players.
One, however, is easy for the players to get amped about.
Illinois will hold its third annual Lift for Life fundraiser later this month. The event starts at 7 p.m. June 27 and will feature the entire team going through a variety of weightlifting competitions. All to raise money for acoustic neuroma, the rare disease former Illinois offensive lineman Andrew Carter has. Acoustic neuroma is a slow-growing tumor of the nerve that connects the ear to the brain, and fewer than 200,000 people are diagnosed with the condition.
Former UI long snapper Zak Pedersen organized the first event in 2012, and former offensive lineman Corey Lewis put together the 2013 event. Now the responsibility falls to offensive lineman Joe Spencer.
“As athletes, we’re up on a higher pedestal,” said Spencer, who is president of the Uplifting Athletes chapter at Illinois, which puts on the weightlifting event. “This gives us an opportunity to use the way society looks at us to use our standing and really spread the word. Rare diseases don’t really have a big push, and when it hit us internally as a program, this really was something Zak Pedersen saw that we could make a difference.”
Admission to the challenge is $5 for adults and $2 for children 13 years and younger, and donations are welcome.
“It’s really fun for us,” Spencer said. “We like to think it’s fun for the fans. The more fan interaction we can get, the better. It’s a really good way to raise money for the cause, and it’s a good breaking point in the summer so there’s no downtime for the players, and it gives them a little taste for fans before camp starts.”
Spencer first met Carter before the 2012 season. Because he was the only offensive lineman in the Class of 2012 and Carter was still around the program helping former offensive line coach Luke Butkus, Spencer had a chance to develop a rapport with Carter that continues to this day.
“The first thing I heard was he was a four-star recruit out of high school,” Spencer said. “I thought, ‘There’s a guy I’m going to have to beat out.’ Then you unfortunately hear the news. He doesn’t let it affect him. Occasionally, he’ll get tired from headaches, but it doesn’t affect him day to day. He’s a cheerful guy who’s always lighting people up.”
Spencer hopes he can replicate that same feeling to Carter by keeping the event going. And by spreading the word about acoustic neuroma.
“That night is one of the nights where everyone is most excited,” Spencer said. “It all comes full circle. We realize the impact we can have on and off the field. It’s a great feeling.”
If Illinois needed any more motivation for the 2014 season, it can find some in various preseason publications.
The Illini aren’t highly regarded in magazines produced by Sporting News, USA Today, Athlon and Lindy’s.
Sporting News, USA Today and Athlon all have Illinois slotted into sixth place in the seven-team West Division in the Big Ten, with Lindy’s being a bit more generous and pegging Illinois fifth in the West.
Athlon and Lindy’s both rank Illinois the 68th-best team in 2014, with USA Today putting the Illini at 104th. None of the publications pick Illinois for a bowl game.
Athlon: “Beckman’s short-term goal is to solidify his position as head coach. Competing for a division title is down the road.”
Lindy’s: “If the Illini build enough confidence early, they might forget they’ve won just one of their past 22 Big Ten games and make a run for the middle of the West Division.”
Sporting News: “If the Illini want to reach a bowl game, their defense must improve. Continued trouble stopping people will spell another poor campaign.”
USA Today: “The five road trips to Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern are likely losses. It will be touch and go in Champaign once again.”