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October 9, 2013
CHAMPAIGN - Through five games, Illinois has made strides from a disastrous 2012 campaign.
Tim Beckman may need to remind his Illini (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) of that for the next month because wins will tough to come by with Wisconsin and Michigan State traveling to Champaign, followed by not-so-easy trips to Penn State and Indiana.
With the team's confidence in danger, Beckman is taking a cue from Illinois basketball coach John Groce, a big fan of Jon Gordon's book "The Energy Bus."
"I think Groce says it best," Beckman said. "It's the energy bus. We're going to be positive. We're going to move this program forward."
Confidence has been fluid through four weeks. The Illini barely got by Southern Illinois in Week 1 before shocking and exciting its fan base with a 45-17 rout of Cincinnati, and on the way gained confidence - too much, according to the coaches.
They were humbled in a 34-24 loss to nationally-ranked Washington at Soldier Field, but players said a late comeback reassured them they belonged on the same field as the Huskies, and any Big Ten team of that caliber. They acted like it in a 50-14 romp of a Miami (Ohio) squad that has struggled so much that its head coach, Don Treadwell, was fired over the weekend.
An unexpected 3-1 start, but Saturday's 20-point loss to Nebraska was a reality check: rebuilding jobs take time, especially at Illinois.
One nonconference season doesn't make up for three years of poor recruiting - two under Ron Zook hampered by speculation about his lack of job security and one as Tim Beckman tried in just under three months to pick up the pieces after Zook's dismissal.
One nonconference season doesn't fix the psyche of a group that has now suffered 15 consecutive Big Ten losses and three seasons of intense negativity.
Senior wide receiver Steve Hull downplays any hangover from or institutional memory of back-to-back brutal Big Ten seasons.
"We don't really look at the past," Hull said. "You can't do that and be fully prepared for the future. That's something our coaches have talked about and I talked about with the other guys. These seniors have done such a great job helping the younger guys along. We're just really devoting to the next step and the next game. I think this bye week is crucial. We're kind of re-focusing and soaking in all the information and the strides that are necessary."
The Illini have shown progress in two of three phases this season. On special teams, the once-incompetent return game now is dangerous (21st nationally in kick returns and 29th in punt returns).Under Bill Cubit, the offense is capable of competing in the Big Ten as players have been put in positions to succeed. The offensive line has improved, especially in the run game.
After a disappointing offensive performance against the less-than-stellar Cornhuskers defense, Cubit this week felt compelled to remind his players of their previous success.
"He told the offense, 'If you have any doubt in your mind about the potential this offense can be, then you're so wrong,'" Hull said. "We see that. But the good thing is with the game we had against Nebraska, we were so upset. Honestly, I don't know about the past offenses, I'd be surprised if that was the same last year or the year before. Because if you looked at a game where you had 400 yards of offense and the stats we do, you'd be like, 'Dang, we played pretty good.' But we were so upset and so angry, and we're still kind of bitter now. If anything, I think that's a great sign for this offense and the direction that we're going."
Despite a defense that looks susceptible to leading the Big Ten in points allowed, this so far feels like a "rebound season." But the Big Ten schedule certainly doesn't suit Illinois for a rebound season, at least record-wise.
Before the season, college football writer Phil Steele ranked the Illini schedule the 20th toughest in the country. The setup of the schedule provides even more challenges.
The Illini started the conference slate at Nebraska, losing 39-19 in front of the 330th straight sellout at the Cornhuskers' Memorial Stadium. The Illini return home with a bye to focus on improvements but is that enough time to prepare for Wisconsin's No. 6 rushing attack and No. 10 scoring defense (the Badgers visit Oct. 19) or Michigan State's No. 7 scoring defense (the Spartans visit Oct. 26)?
"We've lost two football games to top-25 football teams," Beckman said. "We're competing to take everything by quarter, so it's game-by-game. I think our players realize that our first three Big Ten opponents have been in the [Big Ten]championship game the past three years with Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan State, so they're evaluate how much we have progressed as a football program."
The Illini won't be favored in its other two home games either, as No. 4 Ohio State and No. 17 Northwestern travel to Champaign in November.
The more favorable Big Ten matchups for the Illini are all on the road - at Penn State, at Indiana (is it favorable anymore given the Hoosiers' potent offense?) and at Purdue - and the road hasn't been kind to the Illini, who have lost eight straight Big Ten road games and are 6-16 in Big Ten road games since 2008.
The crossover games feature games against three of the top four teams in the Legends Division - Nebraska, Michigan State and No. 17 Northwestern - instead of a flawed Iowa (4-2) and still-rebuilding Minnesota (4-2).
The bright side? At least Michigan isn't on the schedule.
Wins could be difficult to find for the Illini over the next month. The schedule-makers didn't give Illinois Purdue, Minnesota or even Iowa at the front end. But somehow, Beckman's staff and the senior leaders must keep the team focused on incremental progress, even if the record doesn't show it in the short-term.
"I think it's big in any facet of the game, any season, but this is the meat of our schedule," Hull said. "We realize that. We're still seeking that first Big Ten win in a while. That's definitely something that's motivating us, but we understand that that confidence has to be through and through no matter what the outcome is."
Bye week to-do list
Confidence isn't the only aspect the Illini need to work on during their second bye week in four weeks.
1. Missing Lank: Through three games, Ryan Lankford had two 100-yard receiving games and a multitude of big plays. But the senior wideout has just one catch for 11 yards over the last two games. The 6-foot, 170-pound receiver lacks the strength to get separation from more physical corners but Illinois must get their most explosive straight-line runner more involved.
"He's got to take on a role where, 'I got to be the guy.'" Cubit said. "We got to get Ryan to play at a high level. I got to do a better job of getting him in some spots. We got to get that kid going because the last two games he's been out."
2. Pick ups: After allowing three sacks to Nebraska, Illinois ranks 94th in the FBS in sacks allowed with an average of 2.6 per game (13 total). But the offensive line isn't solely to blame.
Cubit said the offensive line has only been to blame for four sacks this season. Cubit added that the running backs have been responsible for five sacks this season and must do a better job of picking up blitzes, while the receivers allowed one on Saturday, failing to get open on a hot route. When teams bring more rushers than Illinois can block, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase must improve communicating hot routes with his wide receivers and getting the ball out quickly, Cubit said.
"It's workable," Cubit said.
3. Finding defensive playmakers: Beckman maintains that tackling remains the porous Illini defense's "glaring difficulty." But the Illini also aren't forcing any action. They rank 117th in the country in sacks with just four sacks in five games and rank 112th in takeaways with just five in five games.
"We don't have enough sacks," Beckman said. "We don't have enough turnovers. We haven't been able to pressure the quarterback like we would like to. How are we going to be and who is that going to be for us to be successful over these next seven games? The pass rush I think it comes back to the philosophy of getting your players that are capable of pressuring the quarterback on the football field as much as possible during those situations so we can put more speed on the football field."
That could mean a turn to youth. Beckman hopes to get talented sophomore defensive tackle Teko Powell back from injury next week, but the Illini could also turn to athletic true freshmen Dawuane Smoot and Jarrod Clements to provide more pressure from their front four.
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU