Northwestern safety Ibraheim Campbell tackles Illinois senior wide receiver Miles Osei, wearing injured teammate Ryan Lankford’s jersey. | Jeff Haynes/AP
Updated: January 2, 2014 6:53AM
CHAMPAIGN — It was written in the reddened eyes of linebacker Jonathan Brown, who’d just poured his guts into 17 tackles. It could be heard in the sighs of massive offensive tackle Corey Lewis, who’d somehow made it to the finish line — upright — despite a long, cruel history of injuries.
It was plain to see, touchingly, as quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and wide receivers Steve Hull, Miles Osei and Ryan Lankford embraced on the field. All of them, dear friends.
“Brothers,” Osei said, feeling the deep meaning of the word.
They all gave in to their emotions after the 37-34 loss to Northwestern that closed the book on their careers. If they cried, if they were sad, if they were hurting, it wasn’t because they’d been on the wrong end of another final score.
It was simply because it’s over.
“It’s hard,” Brown said. “This part of my life has come to an end.”
The Illini end another — how to put this? — less-than-spectacular season with an overall record of 4-8 and a Big Ten mark of 1-7. Hey, it beats the 2-10, 0-8 egg they laid in 2012.
What the aforementioned players and all their fellow seniors hope is that their efforts to make a down-and-out program better have counted for something.
“As much as people may not see it,” Hull said, “the culture has changed a good deal in that locker room. People are more selfless.”
The truth is, he’s right. It was a special group of seniors who led this Illini team in 2013. Great players? Nah. If there were a Top 25 for teams with good guys, though, you can bet Illinois would be in it.
“It has been an honor to coach them,” Tim Beckman said.
Beckman stressed in his postgame comments that not only has the football culture improved, but the on-field product has as well. For months now, he has said this, and it always falls a little flat. A week after ending their 20-game Big Ten losing streak by beating doormat Purdue, the Illini allowed an awful Northwestern team to come to Champaign and get its only league victory.
Sure, Beckman’s second team outplayed his first team, but Illinois still is scraping against the bottom of the Big Ten barrel.
Offensively, the program made a major breakthrough, going from unspeakably bad in 2012 to highly productive under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit.
Defensively, the Illini were a train wreck, failing in virtually every area. It ought to be enough when your offense piles up 492 yards and 34 points at home, but Northwestern went off for 560 yards on 96 offensive plays, the latter a staggering number.
Beckman pointed to the 20 defensive players on Saturday’s two-deep depth chart who will be back in the mix in 2014. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks, who may or may not be around to coach them, predicts a defensive improvement that’ll match the offense’s leap forward this season.
Speaking of possible coaching changes, where does Beckman stand? It would come as a big surprise if he were moved out by athletic director Mike Thomas.
For the moment, any more talk of next season can wait. Maybe these Illini weren’t a great team, but they sure had a way with sentimentality.
Which can be really nice, if you’re into that sort of thing.
“They mean a lot to me,” Beckman said, “and I hope I mean a lot to them, too.”