Illinois’ 16th straight Big Ten loss has glimmer of good
BY STEVE GREENBERG Staff Reporter October 20, 2013 12:20AM
Josh Ferguson is hauled down for a loss by Dezmen Southward on Saturday. | Getty Images
Wisconsin 21 7 14 14 — 56
Illinois 0 17 0 15 — 32
Wis—White 2 run (Russell kick), 10:33.
Wis—Gordon 26 run (Russell kick), 6:03.
Wis—Wozniak 2 pass from Stave (Russell kick), 5:03.
Ill—FG Zalewski 31, 10:45.
Ill—Ferguson 1 run (Zalewski kick), 6:38.
Wis—Gordon 1 run (Russell kick), 1:55.
Ill—LaCosse 1 pass from Bailey (Zalewski kick), :45.
Wis—White 3 pass from Stave (Russell kick), 9:55.
Wis—Gordon 13 run (Russell kick), 5:58.
Ill—Scheelhaase 1 run (Davis pass from Russell), 11:38.
Wis—White 1 run (Russell kick), 8:32.
Wis—Clement 5 run (Russell kick), 2:20.
Ill—Harris 29 pass from O’Toole (Zalewski kick), :44.
TEAM STATISTICS Wis Ill
First downs 25 23
Rushes-yards 46-289 29-72
Passing 189 319
Comp-Att-Int 16-21-0 26-34-0
Return Yards 18 18
Punts-Avg. 3-42.3 4-37.3
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 4-2
Penalties-Yards 8-93 5-45
Time of Possession 34:18 25:42
RUSHING—Wisconsin, Gordon 17-142, White 20-98, Clement 7-54, Team 1-(minus 2), Stave 1-(minus 3). Illinois, Ferguson 7-25, Scheelhaase 12-18, Young 5-12, O’Toole 2-9, Bailey 3-8.
PASSING—Wisconsin, Stave 16-21-0-189. Illinois, Scheelhaase 20-27-0-249, O’Toole 5-5-0-69, Bailey 1-2-0-1.
RECEIVING—Wisconsin, Abbrederis 8-106, Pedersen 3-47, White 3-29, D.Watt 1-5, Wozniak 1-2. Illinois, Hull 6-105, Barr 5-51, Harris 4-58, Lankford 3-50, Ferguson 3-2, LaCosse 2-30, Hardee 1-9, Osei 1-8, Church 1-6.
Updated: November 21, 2013 7:05AM
CHAMPAIGN — There has been much talk already that Illinois is an improved team. And not just that, but an improved program. The product on the field is better. The vibe off the field is better, too.
Fine. It’s probably true.
It’s probably true even though the Illini (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten) lost to 25th-ranked Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1) here on Saturday night by an unsightly score of 56-32.
It’s probably true even though the Illini have lost three of their last four — to capable opponents Washington, Nebraska and Wisconsin, not exactly grounds for an apology.
“We just played Nebraska and Wisconsin,” coach Tim Beckman said, “and they were there in December [in the 2012 Big Ten championship game] the last time I looked.”
It’s probably true even though their losing streak in Big Ten games stands at a hard-to-fathom 16 games.
The streak coincides with an unquestionably down period for the Big Ten. Ohio State is strong, but even the Buckeyes are considered inferior to the top teams in the SEC, Pac-12 and ACC. No one else in the Big Ten, at least not among the supposed contenders, is as strong thus far as it hoped to be.
And this is on the heels of a season in which five-loss Wisconsin represented the league in the Rose Bowl.
The Big Ten stinks, but Illinois can’t win a game anyway. That’s the knee-jerk way to look at things.
There were a couple of things — and only a couple — to appreciate about Illinois’ effort against the bigger, stronger, better Badgers.
One, the Illini offense competed hard. Facing one of the best defenses it’ll see all season, it rolled up 391 yards. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase made some terrific throws, and his receivers made tough catches. The offense, led by ever-impressive coordinator Bill Cubit, continues to do its part.
Two, the team didn’t quit. Not down 21-0. Not down 42-17. Not at all. Not as it did time and again a year ago.
“This team at least fights,” Beckman said. “They’ll fight to the end.”
It’s probably true that Beckman, his staff and their players can still tell a difference from 2012 to 2013. The season is only halfway over. They’re not finished trying to turn things around.
So, about that streak: Let’s call it a bittersweet 16.
The Illini have some blatant flaws. The defense is a weakness, and that’s putting it kindly. This reflects poorly on Beckman, his background being in defense, and certainly must have coordinator Tim Banks feeling uncomfortable.
Here’s another blatant flaw, one Beckman surely doesn’t want to hear: He makes too many excuses for his team. Are the Illini young? Yes, but they aren’t the babes-in-the-woods Beckman paints them as. The offense is a veteran unit. The defense has a handful of leaders with long experience, too.
Do the Illini lack depth? They do, sure. But, halfway through his second season, Beckman shouldn’t be using that as an excuse, either. The depth should be improving. Is it? It’s hard to see it if it is.
Probably, though, this is an improved team. Technically, three victories is one more than it had a year ago. But it won’t mean a thing until the bittersweet streak comes to a blissful end.