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Collapse of his Illinois team shortens Tim Beckman’s grace period

Tim Beckman

Tim Beckman

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Updated: November 17, 2012 6:22AM

How did it get so lame so fast?

Even at Illinois, the only school that has gone to two BCS bowls and suffered through two 10-loss seasons in the last 12 years, this is like a trap door in a haunted house.

A year ago at this time, the Illini seemed to be sitting pretty. While their 6-0 start was aided by a favorable schedule, they looked poised for 7-5 or 8-4. One thing led to another, though, and they lost their last six games, costing Ron Zook his job.

At least last year’s six-game meltdown was anchored by a strong defense that kept Illinois in games. With a solid core of that defense returning, there were reasons to believe the Illini would be competitive this fall. Somewhere in the neighborhood of a .500 record seemed attainable, especially if athletic director Mike Thomas’ belief that he was upgrading the coaching was accurate.

After all, the last coach who ­followed Zook, Urban Meyer, won a national championship at Florida with his players.

Instead, Illinois isn’t even close. It’s 2-5. All five losses have been routs in which it has been outscored 208-59. All five remaining games look shark-infested.

“It’s embarrassing,’’ offensive-line anchor Graham Pocic said after Illinois managed only 134 yards in its 45-0 loss at Michigan on Saturday, including 29 passing yards. “We have a lot of talent. We had a great week of practice. We can’t put any points on the scoreboard. It’s extremely frustrating and extremely surprising.’’

The defense is similarly baffled.

“I’m at a loss for words,’’ defensive end Michael Buchanan said. “We have entirely too much talent on the defensive side of the ball for this to be happening. I don’t think anybody on this team is playing to their potential, myself included.’’

So what’s wrong?

The biggest finger is being pointed at new coach Tim Beckman, a defense-oriented coach who inherited defensive talent.

An unkind schedule that was sneaky hard in nonconference and front-loaded in the Big Ten has greased the slide. A promising-but-young set of assistants — many of them in new roles of responsibility — hasn’t helped, either.

Another big excuse/explanation is an epidemic of injuries. On offense, quarterback Nate Scheelhaase, top linemen Pocic and Hugh Thornton and key receiver Darius Millines have missed games and played hurt. It’s the same deal on defense with linebackers Jonathan Brown and Houston Bates, safeties Supo Sanni and Steve Hull and cornerback Terry Hawthorne. And those are just the starters.

“It plays a huge role,’’ Sanni said, “but at the same time, we have to be able to deal with negativity and play through injuries.’’

Fans and media basically don’t care about injuries because every team has them.

What many Illini fans care about — and are looking at — is Beckman, who might be on the hottest seat ever for a coach barely halfway through his first season.

That’s not fair. A new coach has to be given time to recruit, coach, install. And Thomas is going to give Beckman time to do that, no matter how bleak things look.

What makes this such a tough sell is that Arizona State and UCLA, teams that Illinois beat last season, also changed coaches and are 5-1 and 5-2, respectively. And Ohio State and Penn State, teams that Illinois went toe-to-toe with last season, are 7-0 and 4-2 with new coaches who have excuses that go beyond injuries.

The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions also have coaches who have won national championships and Super Bowls.

What Beckman needs to do is win games, beginning with the next one, a tricky Oct. 27 homecoming meeting against Indiana. The Hoosiers scored almost as many points in their 52-49 loss to Ohio State on Saturday as the 59 Illinois has put up in its five lopsided losses.

This is looking like a long rebuild, especially for a team that didn’t seem to need a rebuild.

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