If one word could adequately describe the Fighting Illini football program, it’s this: Futile.
Following yet another gut-wrenching loss to Penn State on Saturday, the Illini have now lost 18 straight Big Ten games dating back to Oct. 15, 2011. 18 straight.
We all know how the Illini collapsed after that 6-0 start in 2011 which now seems like an eternity ago. We all know how Ron Zook lost his job as a result of it. But the program has clearly regressed since Tim Beckman took over in 2012, and right now there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
Of the Illini’s five losses this year, only Saturday’s (24-17 in overtime) was winnable. Three of those–Nebraska (39-19), Wisconsin (56-32) and Michigan State (42-3)–have been blowouts, and the 34-24 result to Washington at Soldier Field, while competitive, was misleading.
Through 20 games in his tenure, Beckman is 5-15. Pretty typical for a coach leading a program noted for historical ineptitude, but with the amount of talent he inherited from the Zook regime, that’s unacceptable.
While Beckman’s squad may have looked vastly improved during its nononference slate this season, it has lost all momentum in conference play. The Illini have looked badly overmatched in conference play, and worse, the players have lost faith in Beckman.
Having faith in a coach is crucial to a team’s success, but that becomes difficult when losses pile up. Especially at a school like Illinois that plays in the Big Ten.
And yet, there still might be reason to believe in Beckman and his Illini squad. Three of their final four games appear winnable. The program will gladly take any momentum it can get to revive the season, and a breakthrough victory next Saturday at always disappointing Indiana would be a big step forward.
Momentum is precious in football, and playing cellar-dwelling teams will always generate it. Beckman has yet to win a Big Ten game at Illinois, but this upcoming stretch represents his best chance.
After traveling to Indiana, the Illini go back home to face an Ohio State team which, ironically, hasn’t lost a Big Ten game since Beckman has been at Illinois. Actually, the Buckeyes haven’t lost at all. The Buckeyes currently own the nation’s longest winning streak at 22 games.
You can already consider Ohio State an automatic loss, one that will likely have an ugly result and negate any momentum the team had sustained. But with hapless Purdue and fading Northwestern back-to-back on the schedule to close out the regular season, the opportunity to recapture the momentum is there for the taking.
Considering how this season has seemingly spiraled out of control, Beckman’s team simply needs to show any kind of improvement at this point through the end of the season. A 6-6 finish would be miraculous, one that would likely save Beckman’s job.
But, with a history of losing echoing that of the Lovable Losers up the road, expect to be disappointed in the end.