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Illinois football insists it still has much to play for this season

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase says Illinois has been forced re-evaluate its goals. | AP

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase says Illinois has been forced to re-evaluate its goals. | AP

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Updated: December 8, 2012 6:25AM

Don’t tell senior offensive tackle Corey Lewis that Illinois has nothing to play for in its final three games.

After five knee surgeries spanning nearly three years, Lewis played Saturday at Ohio State for the first time since the Illini ended their 2009 season with a wacky 53-52 loss to Fresno State.

‘‘It’s been almost three years since I played an actual snap of football,’’ Lewis said. ‘‘It was very emotional for me. I worked so hard. I’m just thankful for the opportunity to play again. I’ll be thankful if the NCAA grants me [a sixth year of eligibility].’’

Many of Illinois’ hopes and dreams are gone, but one thing is left.

‘‘Love of the game,’’ quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. ‘‘Everybody that comes here wants to play college football at the highest level. Getting to a bowl game is one of our goals; we’re not going to reach that. You have to re-evaluate. We have to be a better team at the end of the year than we were at the start of the year.’’

Despite their 52-22 loss to the unbeaten Buckeyes, the Illini left Columbus feeling they made some strides. And they are eager to take a shot at ending their six-game losing streak Saturday against Minnesota (2:30 p.m., BTN).

‘‘Most definitely,’’ said defensive tackle Glenn Foster, who had two of Illinois’ four sacks against Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. ‘‘We know the type of talent we have. We know what we’re capable of doing. It’s all about executing.’’

When the season began, few would have guessed the Illini would be sitting on an 11-game Big Ten losing streak in November. That’s their longest drought since they went 0-8 in the Big Ten in 2003, then lost their first six conference games in 2004.

Coach Tim Beckman knows how much the losing streak hurts. He knows how much a victory would mean to young men who put so much into playing football.

After a season filled with slogans and motivational carrots, Beckman seems to have dialed down his preaching to the basics — with a curious appeal to the media.

‘‘It’s huge,’’ Beckman said. ‘‘Each game is important. Not for me; I want the players to win. We’re in this game — I hope you guys are, too — for the players. That’s what this game is about. We wouldn’t be here, none of us, if it wasn’t for the players.’’

While most media are precluded ethically and professionally from rooting one way or another, it’s pretty clear this Illinois team is entitled to — and worthy of — any happiness it can find in its remaining games.

‘‘I want these seniors to win in the worst way,’’ Beckman said. ‘‘They need to experience what it’s like to win again in the Big Ten. I’d love to see nothing more than for them to go out and win these next three games.’’

It’s a nice sentiment. The trouble is, there’s a coach and players on the opposite sideline who feel the same way.

If the Illini want to find happiness on the football field, they’re going to have to earn it. But that’s not news to them.

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