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November 9, 2013

Time running out for Illini players, coaches

Time is running out....

On the Illini opportunities to end what is now tied for the second-longest Big Ten losing streak ever. The Illini's 19-game losing streak (Wisconsin, Indiana and Minnesota also have 19-game losing streaks in their history) undoubtedly will turn into a 20-game losing streak with undefeated Ohio State coming to Champaign on Saturday. Luckily, Illinois heads to Purdue the following week. The Illini (3-5, 0-5 Big Ten) likely will be favored over the Boilermakers (1-8, 0-5), who are averaging just 6.2 points per game during Big Ten play. Should they stumble, Northwestern, even with its 0-5 record, is not an easy out at home in the season finale. The Wildcats have lost its last three games by a combined 13 points. A Big Ten losing streak entering its third year could drive Illini fan apathy to an all-time high.

For Tim Banks, whose defense is putting up astonishing numbers. Like, "astonishing" in a bad way. Like video-game numbers. Illinois is allowing 42.6 points per game during Big Ten play. Illinois is allowing 523.2 yard per game during conference play. Illinois is allowing 302.8 rushing yards per game to Big Ten opponents. The Illinois defensive coordinator has very little talent at his disposal this season. But he had plenty of talent last year, including three NFL draft picks, so he's built little credibility at Illinois. And while his defense is undersized, overmatched and inexperienced, it has shown few signs of progress in recent weeks, except for forcing a few turnovers.

The freshmen cornerbacks too often have been put on an island in single-man coverage against more physical, experienced receivers. Players who don't have the athleticism to make plays in space are being asked to make plays in space. Banks might not be able to do much in the final three games to ensure he's back next season. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas must show the fan base that losing by an average of 21.4 points in conference play won't cut it. When your defense is allowing six touchdowns per game, the defensive coordinator is an easy target.

For Nathan Scheelhaase, who is putting together his best season of quarterbacking at Illinois. His 450-yard performance against Indiana was the fifth highest single-game total in Illinois history, behind three guys named Juice Williams, Tony Eason and Dave Wilson. The four-year starting quarterback has thrown for a career-high 2,420 yards - with three games remaining. He has 15 touchdowns to eight interceptions. He has never been so efficient. He's thriving under first-year offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, his fourth offensive coordinator at Illinois. Too bad he has only one year with the former Western Michigan head coach. Too bad he has played under such a bad environment, especially last year's failed two-coordinator system. Scheelhaase deserves to go out on a higher note. Too bad the play calling and the defense have failed him.

For Steve Hull, who put his name in the Illini record books with a 224-yard receiving performance on Saturday, the second highest single game total in Illinois history behind only A.J. Jenkins' 268-yard performance against Northwestern in 2011. Time supposedly had run out on Hull last season, when he was told by some doctors that shoulder injuries had ended his career. But a visit to NFL team doctors changed that. He moved to wide receiver, where he would take fewer blows. That's where Hull wanted to play all along anyway. And he's thrived, leading the team with 564 receiving yards. Maybe Hull could've made this impact on offense all along. Too bad Ron Zook couldn't recruit safeties because Scheelhaase could've used Hull's playmaking abilities in 2011 and 2012.

For Jonathan Brown, who likely is the only current upperclassmen on the Illini defense who will even register on NFL radars. Brown leads the Big Ten in tackles per game. But he's leading a putrid defense. He came back for his senior season not only to improve his draft status - which was injured by injuries last season - but to make his third bowl game. Barring the impossible Saturday against the Buckeyes, that opportunity is gone. Brown is frustrated by the lack of talent around him, though he doesn't complain about it through the media. Coaches praise him for his work ethic and hope it rubs off on his younger teammates. Too bad Brown didn't have more talented teammates in front, behind and around him to help him compete for one last bowl bid.

For Tim Beckman? I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I think a head football coach needs three to four years to build a program. But Beckman has made enough blunders - his initial staff hirings, sideline interference penalties and, on Saturday, not going for it on 4th and 3, running Aaron Bailey on consecutive plays on 3rd and 4th and short, and attempting a fake punt - to lose the fan base through just 21 games. But the question is whether the people who matter most - Thomas, the administration and big boosters - have more patience.

Beckman has given some hope by landing Bailey and big-armed transfer Wes Lunt, a central Illinois native. But if the Illini suffer another 0-8 season, Beckman deserves to sweat out the hot seat. Thomas reluctantly would have to reconsider his first Illini hire after just two seasons. Likely, Thomas wants to bring Beckman back. He just needs a little more reason to do so. Even if Illinois beats Purdue, ends the conference losing streak and finishes 4-8, ticket sales likely will continue to decline. To help himself, Beckman first needs to beat Purdue. That should ensure Year Three. Beating Northwestern surely would give the fans some excitement going into next season. Then, he needs to patch the defense and develop its young talent enough for Cubit's offense to have the opportunity to lead the program back to a bowl game during next season's more manageable schedule.

Expectations were low entering season. But failure to exceed those ground-level expectations has heightened the sense of urgency for Beckman's Illini.

The clock is ticking.

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 9 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at espncu.com. You can contact him at jeremy@espncu.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU

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