Illinois head coach Tim Beckman yells to his players during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin in Champaign, Ill., Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013. Wisconsin won 56-32. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
Updated: October 30, 2013 10:58AM
The excitement of a 3-1 September has been replaced by the reality of a three-and-rout October. That leaves Illinois limping into November with an all-too-familiar set of questions.
What can be salvaged? Should there be a coaching change?
Second things first (hey, it is Illinois): Tim Beckman isn’t going anywhere for a bunch of reasons.
Progress was the most important goal this season. And there’s already been some progress. A surprisingly clever offense averaged 40.2 ppg in four nonconference games before hitting the Nebraska/Wisconsin/Michigan State wall. If promising youngsters Aaron Bailey and Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt can fill Nathan Scheelhaase’s large shoes at quarterback, the offense will have a chance to keep moving forward next season — as long as offensive coordinator Bill Cubit doesn’t get a better offer.
And if the defense, which has allowed 45.7 points per game in the three Big Ten wipeouts, is a disaster area, the party line is that Illinois, which loses only two defenders, should be much improved there next year.
In short, some boosters may disagree. But that’s not grounds for a coaching change. Ron Turner (3-19 overall, 2-14 Big Ten) and Ron Zook (4-19, 1-15) didn’t exactly light up the sky in their first two years at Illinois, where the cupboard is often bare.
In addition, booting Beckman after two years not only would add to athletic director Mike Thomas’ already lengthy set of buyout obligations. It would send an unsettling message to future candidates, and probably consign Illinois to an even longer “rebuilding’’ effort.
Some Illini Nation skeptics will ask exactly what Beckman brings to this equation. The offense seems to be all about Cubit. And while Beckman has cut down on the gaffes and shown some recruiting promise, it’s not easy to see a Sugar Bowl (Turner, fifth season) or Rose Bowl (Zook, third year) in his future.
That’s an Illini Nation worry for down the road. What’s important now is taking another step in November.
Every Big Ten opponent poses a major challenge for under-manned Illinois. Against Penn State on Saturday and Ohio State on Nov. 16, the Illini can cop the quality-opponent plea.
It’s the games against Indiana, Purdue and a suddenly sinking Northwestern where the excuses and explanations won’t carry much weight. Beckman needs to win at least one of those three and be competitive in all of them.
All signs point toward the Nov. 23 trip to Purdue as the key measuring stick. At 1-6, the Boilermakers are having a miserable debut under Darrell Hazell, who, like Beckman, made a quick jump from the MAC.
That game ought to be a battle between two emaciated alley cats scuffling for a meager morsel.
Win that game, and Beckman/Thomas can claim Illinois is moving forward, however tiny the baby steps. Go 0-5 in November, and progress is a much tougher sell.
Nothing’s going to top Ohio State-Michigan. But Penn State-Ohio State sure is heating up. The Nittany Lions are seething that the Buckeyes rubbed their nose in it during a 63-14 rout.
◆ It’s pretty clear that Northern Illinois, which won at Iowa and Purdue, is the state’s best team. The question is, where would Eastern Illinois finish in a Land of Lincoln tournament? The Panthers, who gave NIU an early scare, are No. 2 in the FCS standings after winning 34-16 at Tennessee State and moving into sole possession of first place in the Ohio Valley Conference.
◆ If it wasn’t for bad timing, Northwestern, which goes to Nebraska on Saturday, wouldn’t have any timing at all. The Cornhuskers’ wheels practically came off in a loss at Minnesota. Their lugnuts will be on so tight this week, NU will think the Huskers are playing for Bo Pelini’s job.