By Vinnie Duber
EVANSTON -- “A new era beckons,” reads the T-shirt advertised on the Fighting Illini’s official athletic site. The shirt features a picture of first-year head coach Tim Beckman.
Well, following the final game of the season -- a 50-14 loss to Northwestern on Saturday at Ryan Field -- Beckman is now Illinois’ second-year coach, and that new era is off to the same start as the previous one: without a single conference victory.
The loss sent the Illini to an 0-8 record in Big Ten play, the first winless conference schedule for Illinois since the first season of the Ron Zook era in 2005. It’s the 14th time in school history the Illini have gone winless in conference play and the fourth since 1997.
“You’re in this game for the players,” Beckman said as he summed up the season. “This game is an unbelievable game. You feel close to one another as a family. Kids coming over to your house and eating Thanksgiving dinner. All of those things. But the losing, really, it hurts. You want your kids to experience winning just like you want your sons to experience winning. We didn’t experience winning this year. It’s one of the hardest years I’ve ever gone through.”
Illinois’ loss in the battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy was marred by the same kinds of mistakes that sent them to losses in their first seven Big Ten contests. Too many turnovers and too many penalties told the story. A pair of Illini quarterbacks combined for three interceptions, and a fumble on a kickoff return led to Northwestern’s first touchdown of the day.
The Illini racked up eight penalties in the first half, totaling 88 yards in damage. Among the infractions was a pair of sideline interference penalties on Beckman and something called “illegal numbering.”
“We had too many penalties again, certain things that you can’t do, and we ended up doing those things,” Beckman said. “Turnovers, penalties, not tackling as well as we’re capable of tackling. All together, it wasn’t one of our better games again. When you’re playing a team that has won football games and is considered one of the Top 25 or 30 teams in the country, then you’re going to have to play a lot better than we did.”
It’s those types of mistakes that have the Illini sitting at the bottom of the Big Ten. They have turned the ball over 19 times, a conference high, and they rank last in turnover margin, at -11.
Illinois allowed 50 points for the third time this season, and Northwestern’s 338 rushing yards were the second most an opponent posted all season. How bad was it for the Illini? The Wildcats’ fifth touchdown of the day was a pass to Paul Jorgensen, a sophomore offensive lineman. And he was wide open, too.
According to freshman running back Josh Ferguson, the Illinois locker room was at “an all-time low.” Junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase called the last four months the hardest of his life.
“We’ve been disappointed and frustrated for a while just because we haven’t been producing the way we wanted to,” Scheelhaase said. “Obviously you want to finish on a good note, but it didn’t happen today. It’s something you’ve got to deal with, something you’ve got to eat. You have to take that mindset into the offseason. That’s the only thing you can do.”
Talking after the game, Scheelhaase and the Illini were obviously looking ahead, and the quarterback must have said the word “learning” about a dozen times. The Illini see this disappointing season as a learning experience.
“You learn not only what it feels like to lose, but you learn how small a margin of error there is with winning and losing,” Scheelhaase said. “Whether it’s a mistake here or a mistake there, or them not making a mistake or you not capitalizing on a mistake that they make, you learn how fine of a difference [there is] or how much momentum can change the way a game goes, the way a season goes.”
As the Beckman era heads into its first offseason, much talked about will be the coach’s job security. But after the game, players and coaches alike spoke highly of him.
“I think we definitely believe in the coaches,” Scheelhaase said. “I have no reason not to believe in these coaches to a man. I’m sure as coaches there’s a bunch of things they want to do different, and trust me, as a player there’s a lot of things that we could have capitalized on, not just this game but this whole season.”
“No one likes to lose,” said defensive coordinator Tim Banks. “No one wants to put so much work in and not come home successful. One thing I know about him: He’s no quitter. He’s going to continue to work, continue to fight, and he’s going to continue to demand we put guys in positions to be successful. I think that’s what a great leader does. He’ll be fine.”
It’s important to note that Zook remained on the job for six more campaigns following his winless debut effort in the Big Ten.
Beckman pointed out that it takes time to turn things around, and he noted Northwestern as an example. He mentioned that Pat Fitzgerald has spent seven years bringing the Wildcats to the point they’re at now: en route to their fifth consecutive bowl game.
“We’re going to go back and do our plan. The plan, it does work. It has worked. Didn’t work this year, but there are reasons that it has worked and there’s belief behind it,” Beckman said. “And you believe in the things you believe in and go with it and you make sure that you recruit players that believe in the same thing.
“We have to move forward. There’s only one way you can go, is forward. So my coaching staff will be out on the road tomorrow, and we’re going to get it together and see what we’ve got to do to get players in here to the University of Illinois -- this great place, great institution, great football tradition -- and do what we’ve got to do to get this program back on top.”