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October 27, 2012

Illini at the bottom of the food chain

CHAMPAIGN - Illinois football has gotten so bad that Tim Beckman has lost his appetite.

The already embattled first-year Illini head coach said after a 31-17 loss to Indiana (3-4, 1-3 Big Ten) that he's lost 22 pounds this season. Apparently, he's eating too much beans and weenies (what Beckman fed losers of offseason competitions) and not enough lasagna (his wife's weekly meal for a positional group of players).

With its fifth straight loss of the season and 10th consecutive Big Ten loss, the Illini (2-6, 0-4) confirmed what many conference power rankings had suggested for weeks: the Illini are entrenched at the bottom of the food chain in what is arguably the weakest Big Ten in decades.

Illinois handed Indiana coach Kevin Wilson his first career Big Ten win (on his 12th try) in front of a paid attendance of 47,981 of the most fiercely loyal fans on Homecoming.

Most Illini fans had hit the exits with six minutes left. They aren't liking the smell of what Beckman's program is cooking. Neither is he.

"You think I like losing?" Beckman said. "I hate it. We just continue to go. Lug forward. I've learned a lot. No, I don't like losing. Hate it.

"I don't think anyone on our football team's a loser. We're fighters, and we have to fight. You have no choice but to fight. I think we have great kids here. I think they play hard. We just have to learn to win."

Illinois has now lost five straight games to FBS opponents by an average margin of 27.2 points. Beckman's job - rebuilding a staggering program by recruiting better talent - becomes more difficult with each loss. To its credit, the UI staff so far has maintained a class of 19 recruits that currently ranks 27th in the country. After falling to the perennial bottom dweller in the Big Ten, it doesn't appear the Illini will start climbing back up the Big Ten ladder unless that talent makes it to Champaign.

With the hope of a third straight bowl game on life support - Illinois travels to Ohio State next week - Illinois linebacker Ashante Williams said the Illini have to start giving Beckman's program a push in the right direction.

"I want to see him start his career at Illinois off on a good note as well and our senior class … help him jump into the Big Ten on a good foot," Williams said. "I feel like as a senior class now it's our responsibility to try and make sure that we can better this program for the future so that Coach Beckman doesn't have to face this later on down the line and he knows that those younger guys learn from us and they know how to respond to the adversity and the hardship that you face throughout the season or a particular game."

More snowballs

With Illinois football's fall over the last calendar year, we've now come to expect the worst. The same mental miscues and special teams blunders that pockmarked Ron Zook's eventual swansong season have continued under Beckman's watch.

The Illinois offense played its best half of the year against FBS competition in the first half, but the Illini defense and special teams found a way to cough up any momentum

Terry Hawthorne's unnecessary roughness penalty jolted Indiana's first-quarter scoring drive to tie the Illini 7-7. Justin Staples' decision to hit Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld about three yards out of bounds turned what would have been a 4th-and-6 to a 1st-and10. Four plays later, Indiana was in the end zone to tie it 14-14.

The snowball started its descent down the hill.

After the Illini defense finally refrained from committing a penalty to prolong a Hoosiers drive, Tommy Davis muffed a punt inside the Illini 25-yard line.

Gravity continued its pull and the miscues began to layer.

On the ensuing Hoosiers drive, Glenn Foster took the Hoosiers' bait, jumping offside as Indiana milked every second of the play clock waiting for the seemingly inevitable Illini error.

"It's a thin line," Illini defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "You want your guys running hard to the ball. You want them attacking and doing all those things, but the good programs understand when to say, 'Woah.' Obviously, we got to do a better job of that."

Stephen Houston ran it in from seven yards out, his third touchdown of the day to give Indiana a 21-17 lead.

All the first-half Illini miscues were committed by seniors.

"We can't do those things," Beckman said. "We're not a good enough football team - or anybody's a good enough football team - to do those things. It ended up biting us, and we end up losing the football game.

"It's not acceptable, and those young men understand that. Those young men are in there hurting as much as anyone's hurting."

The snowball changed hands in the second half. Donovonn Young fumbled on the Illini's first drive of the second half. Indiana recovered capitalized with a 28-yard field goal, taking a 24-14 lead. Down two possessions and forced to pass, Illinois' suspect offensive line imploded and allowed seven sacks on the game.

"We can't do those things. We're not a good enough football team - or anybody's a good enough football team - to do those things. It ended up biting us, and we end up losing the football game."

"It's been one of those things where we make a mistake and we just don't recover from the mistake that we made, and (recovering) that's what the good teams do," said Young, who rushed for a career-high 124 yards on 21 carries. "There's going to be bad things that happen in games, always. Once we get that aspect down, just bouncing back when tough times hit, we'll be all right."

Ground game going

For the first time during Big Ten play, Illinois' run game showed its potential. Behind Young and a healthy Nathan Scheelhaase, the Illini ran for 196 yards, the second most this season behind a 231-yard performance against Arizona State. Take out Scheelhaase's sacks (the junior quarterback gained 89 yards on the ground but netted just 32 because of 57 yards lost, mostly on sacks) and the Illini may have surpassed the ASU total.

"It's hard when you keep losing like this, but … we got some good things going today," Young said. "We can look at that for inspiration for next week."

But like it has all season, the Illini's lack of pass protectors and vertical playmakers again was exposed when it was forced to go to the air late in the game.

"We can't ever get behind the sticks or behind on the scoreboard because it's hard because it's hard for us to score points in bunches," Beatty said. "That's just not where we are right now as far as the talent level, but at some point hopefully we will be."

Illinois also missed on its few vertical opportunities. Scheelhaase overthrew Ryan Lankford and Dami Ayoola on deeper routes.

"We can't have long foul balls," Beatty said. "We're not the team that can make up for those long foul balls. When we get those, we got to make sure we hit home runs. Today, we were a fingertip away from a couple of them.

Scheelhaase toughed it. He came up gimpy late in the fourth quarter after taking his seventh sack of the game but never left the field and finished the game. Illinois entered the game 109th in the FBS with an average of 3.29 sacks allowed per game. Now with an average of 3.75 sacks allowed per game, they'll move down that list even further.

Asked if he's concerned with the amount of hits, Scheelhaase takes, Beckman said: "There always is. I don't want Nate to get hit at all, if I can help it."

NOTES: Beckman said Illinois redshirt freshman running back Josh Ferguson left the game with a hip injury, possibly a hip pointer. He rushed for 16 yards on two carries. In his place, true freshman Dami Ayoola had 24 yards on six carries . … Redshirt senior offensive tackle Corey Lewis was active for the first time since 2009 (knee injuries) but did not play. Beckman said earlier in the week that he had intended to play Lewis … Junior safety Steve Hull picked off his second pass of the season but left the game twice after re-aggravating a shoulder injury that has bothered him the past two seasons. … Junior wide receiver Darius Millines had five receptions for a season-high 80 receiving yards on, his high since totaling a career-high 119 yards in the 2011 season opener against Arkansas State. … Junior linebacker Jonathan Brown had a season-high 11 tackles, his first double-digit tackling performance of the season. Freshman Mason Monheim had 10 tackles, his second double-digit tackling performance of the season.

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 jeremy@espncu.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU

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