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Illinois AD: Football program developing, but team needs to win

Illinois head coach Tim Beckman reacts call field during second half an NCAA college football game Saturday Nov. 9 2013

Illinois head coach Tim Beckman reacts to a call on the field during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana defeated Illinois 52-35. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

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Updated: November 10, 2013 10:12PM

CHAMPAIGN — Nearly four months ago, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas laid out his expectations for the second season of Illini football under coach Tim Beckman. Another 2-10 campaign clearly wouldn’t get the job done, but what would?

“Certainly, you absolutely need to be able to move the needle in the right direction, need to move the ball down the field, so to speak, and need to be competitive in all areas,” Thomas said then. “And we want to field a team people want to watch.”

The Illini are 3-6 overall and 0-5 in Big Ten play. They’ve lost 19 straight league games. Their offense is much better than it was in 2012, but their defense is a whole lot worse. Attendance at 60,670-seat Memorial Stadium remains a downer, too, with official figures lagging in the mid-40,000s and actual crowds appearing smaller than that.

What does Thomas have to say now?

“We talked about moving the needle, showing progress,” he said. “I think, in most cases, we have.”

But now is not the right time to ask Thomas to take an official position on Beckman’s future. The 48-year-old coach has three full seasons left on the five-year, $9 million contract he signed when he was hired. If Thomas is committed to Beckman in 2014, let alone beyond, he isn’t saying.

“I’m not going to get into hypotheticals,” Thomas told the Sun-Times. “You ask the question, ‘Is the program developing and getting better?’ I think it is. I’m looking forward to continuing progress in the program.”

It would probably be foolish to think Thomas already has his mind made up on Beckman. As the expression goes, there’s a whole lot of football left in 2013. There are three games — home against Ohio State, at Purdue, home against Northwestern — that could move Beckman’s standing with his boss in a better direction or a worse direction.

Perhaps a much worse direction.

That 19-game streak is tied for the second-longest in Big Ten history. Northwestern’s epic 38-gamer (1978-82) surely is safe, but there’s little doubt the Illini will own second place by themselves after Saturday’s game against unbeaten Ohio State. If the Illini lose out, the number 22 will define the program.

“Obviously, we don’t want the streak to become the focus,” Thomas said. “We want to get past it. That’s important to us.

“I think we need to start winning football games.”

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