Updated: August 27, 2013 6:37AM
Illinois almost gave Northwestern a run for its money in the 2012 regular-season finale, which is to say the Illini — losers of 13 straight Big Ten games coming in — scored first for a 7-0 lead.
After that, well, it went as a lot of games did for a team that finished 2-10.
“They started off strong, but football is a game that’s all about responding,” Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter said Thursday at Big Ten media days. “We took their best punch, and then we started punching back. I felt like they fought hard, but football is a game for tough guys.”
Illinois lost 50-14 in Evanston that day, a miserable and yet fitting way to wrap things up. As for whether coach Tim Beckman’s first team was tough enough, there probably is no need for debate. But did the Illini play hard until the end? Within the Illini program, there are different versions of the truth.
Ask Beckman how he hopes the Illini — win or lose — will be seen by opponents, and his answer is what one would expect it to be:
“Just a team that plays hard. Playing hard for four quarters. Playing with great effort.”
That’s not what Beckman saw last season.
“I don’t think that’s what [opponents] stated after every game,” he said.
“That probably was the biggest thing that hurt me. A majority of teams I’ve coached, from coaching DBs to linebackers to being a head coach, they’ve left that field able to say that they played hard.”
Senior defensive end Tim Kynard doesn’t agree with Beckman’s analysis.
“No, I don’t,” he said. “I believe that we played hard. Things were wrong a lot last season, but I thought guys fought to the end.”
Clearly, many things were wrong. The Illini had the Big Ten’s worst offense and ranked 10th out of 12 teams in total defense. They gave up the most sacks in the league, had the worst turnover margin and did less with their return units than anybody, too. In a nutshell: Almost nothing was right.
At the crux of the defense’s problems — and, remember, Beckman’s background is on that side of the ball — the Illini were “living in the past,” according to Kynard. They were less than thrilled with the schematic changes Beckman installed after replacing Ron Zook.
“Our old system worked,” Kynard said. ‘‘We went to two straight bowl games. We were producing NFL players. So it was a change.
“Some of the guys didn’t buy into [Beckman’s] system. Most of them did, but we need the whole team to buy in.”
Kynard emphasizes that teammates have, in fact, bought in this offseason, which is what Beckman spent the last two days telling reporters.
But are the Illini really on the same page? Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase’s take on 2012 will make you wonder.
“I think what you saw was a team that relied a lot on individual talent and thought about what they were doing themselves,” he said. “What that looks like is not what it looks like when a team is cohesive, when a team cares more about the guy next to him than he cares about himself.
“We didn’t play together, and when you see a team that doesn’t play together, there isn’t that same energy and effort being put forth.”
Which comes close to Beckman’s point about not always playing hard.
Was this purely a player problem? Was the coaching staff to blame?
“We tried,” Beckman said. “We tried everything. It just didn’t happen.”
“I think this team realizes the expectation level from the coaching staff and the players on this team [is] very involved in the team aspect of it.”
No one would debate whether that’s a good thing. But it seems there’s work to do, still, for all involved to get on the same page.