Tate: Beckman's time is now

Tate: Beckman's time is now

It’s now or never. No margin for error. Tim Beckman’s Illini are long past the “play ’em close” and “moral victory” stage.

Beginning with Youngstown State (11 a.m. Saturday), the “must” label hangs over every home game this season, even if Illinois will be an underdog in some cases. Seven Memorial Stadium outings are critical to the attainable goal of a postseason bowl trip because Beckman’s third edition will be a distinct underdog in the first four road ventures.

With just one Big Ten win in two seasons, Beckman is preaching confidence to a squad surrounded by doubting fans, disbelieving media and a national audience that barely pays attention (read on for more on dwindling Illini attendance).

No amount of talk — only a succession of victories — will reverse this attitude.

“We need to start fast,” Beckman said, “which is something we didn’t do last year. We can see where we are better ... deeper and more experienced than last year.”

Statistics verify weak efforts fresh from the 2013 locker room. Opponents outscored the UI 108-41 in the first quarter and 122-87 in the third quarter.

Eric Wolford’s Penguins view this as an upset within their reach, citing their 31-17 opening upset of Pitt in 2012 and last year’s 28-27 defeat of Southern Illinois, a team that fell 42-34 to the Illini. In an 8-1 start last season, the Penguins also defeated Illinois State 59-21 and Western Illinois 24-14.

Surprise factor

Youngstown State has an unproven quarterback, Dante Nania, taking over for four-year star Kurt Hess. So look for Wolford to test the UI front with his best offensive player, 2013 Missouri Valley Newcomer of the Year Martin Ruiz. Ruiz rushed for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns last season.

“They’ll spread us out and test us on the edges,” UI junior linebacker Mason Monheim said.

“But at game time, all bets are off. We try to anticipate based on last season, but it’s the first game, and we really don’t know what they are going to do. Even during the season, the game plan can change from week to week. If it’s not what you expect, you have to rely on your instincts and the foundation you’ve built. I definitely feel they’ll try to run the ball based on our struggles last season.”

Offensively, UI coordinator Bill Cubit expects “a lot of pressure with Youngstown State bringing blitzes by the safeties and big numbers in the box.”

“It’s my job to help us get started,” Cubit said. “I keep telling our players how good they can be. We were feeling it out last year. Now our confidence is much higher.”

Cubit and his assistants will be busy counting reps by his receivers and backs. Other than quarterback and the line, he will shuffle personnel groups.

“We can’t give 50 or 60 reps to our backs and receivers,” he said. “We’ll keep them fresh. It’s important for Donovonn Young to take the load off Josh Ferguson. And we need Wes Lunt to make good decisions at the line (where play calls can be altered) and get rid of the ball quickly.”

Building interest

This is the first opportunity for the Illini to prove themselves to a world of doubters. Losses discourage turnout, and the reduced seating capacity of 60,760 is below the listed average attendance during the sellout era from 1981 through 1987 (Mike White era).

Attendance questions persist:

— Will the turnout sink for the sixth straight year? Official numbers show the UI steadily drifting from a 19-year high of 61,707 in 2008 (following the Jan. 1, 2008 Rose Bowl) to 43,787 last season, a fall of nearly 18,000. The Big Ten record in those five years tells why: 9 wins, 31 losses.

— Regardless of the official attendance pronouncement that computes all sales, how many ticket-holders will actually be in the stands ... at kickoff and in the third quarter? We’ve seen a big gap between sales and actual attendance in recent years.

— If the cost of midfield seats indicates their desirability, and if end zone seats are sold for substantially less, does the location of student seats in the north end zone partially explain why those seats are so often empty? Or is fading interest by students here merely part of a national trend?

— Might weak UI attendance be perceived as a lack of school spirit by prospective recruits who see more vigorous turnouts at other Big Ten schools? Among 12 conference schools last year, Illinois finished 11th, just below Indiana (44,353) and ahead of Northwestern (39,307). Seven Big Ten members topped 67,000, with Michigan and Ohio State over 100,000.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.