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Beckman says Illinois’ spirits are high, but players are more down to earth

Illinois head coach Tim Beckman walks sideline during first quarter against Michigan State Saturday Oct. 26 2013 Memorial Stadium Champaign

Illinois head coach Tim Beckman walks the sideline during the first quarter against Michigan State, Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Bradley Leeb) ORG XMIT: ILBL102

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Updated: October 30, 2013 10:07PM

Tim Beckman knows Illinois fans are unhappy, and how couldn’t they be? Their team has lost 17 consecutive Big Ten games. Their coach is 0-11 in the conference and 5-14 overall since arriving in Champaign. League opponents have taken three cracks at the Illini in 2013 and pummeled them by a combined score of 137-54.

“I know [fans] weren’t happy with the way that we played during homecoming,” Beckman said this week, stating the utterly obvious.

Sections of the Memorial Stadium stands were empty by the thousands again as the Illini (3-4) were beaten — shamed, really — 42-3. Those who keep coming out must not hold much belief in Beckman’s ability to turn things around in November, yet the coach still is talking about making it to a bowl game.

His message to Illini Nation?

“We’ve got five opportunities to prove what this football team can do, and we’re going to take them one at a time and going to continue to strive to get better,” Beckman said.

“We are a much improved football team [compared with] last year at this time. To say we went nine weeks without a losing record, I’m proud of that.”

Is it mathematically possible for a team to win three, lose four, have two byes and go nine weeks without a losing record? We remain unconvinced.

According to Beckman’s math, it makes sense. According to Beckman, the Illini also “competed at utmost, top levels” in their three Big Ten blowout losses, with the exception of the second half of the Michigan State game.

“We have been successful. We have been winners,” he said. “And now we’ve got to get back into that winning phase of it again.”

Suffice it to say the coach’s morale is in fine shape.

The fans? Again, they can’t be very happy.

How about the players? This is where it gets tricky. The entire identity of this team throughout the offseason was wrapped up in being positive, in staying together, in believing in their coaches and in one another and aiming to prove a lot of doubters wrong.

“I think the morale has been outstanding,” Beckman said. “We’ve got great character players on this football team.”

The problem is, they’ve been around a whole lot of losing.

“Losing definitely takes a toll on anybody,” said senior linebacker Jonathan Brown, the leader of the defense.

It has been hardest of all on a defense that has had almost no success whatsoever since the Miami (Ohio) game in September.

Overall, the Illini’s 103rd-ranked defense is allowing 457.7 yards per game, second-most in the Big Ten. But the real struggles have been with the little things. This is the worst defense in the league — 115th in the country — on third down, allowing opponents to convert 48.4 percent of the time. Only five FBS teams are producing fewer sacks than the one-a-game Illini. Worse yet, no team has created fewer turnovers than Illinois (six).

Those little failures, repeated week after week, would do damage to any team’s morale. Wouldn’t they?

“It’s probably more positive around here than it’s been in the past couple of weeks,” said Brown, citing a well-played first half by the defense against MSU.

It’s probably safe to say the
morale is a tad less than outstanding.

“We’re a little hurt from the loss we just took,” said defensive lineman Houston Bates. “We have to try to stay positive. There are still winnable games on our schedule.”

A key for the Illini continues to be rallying around their seniors. If there’s one obvious improvement since a year ago, it’s that the current group of seniors has the respect of the younger players.

“Definitely, our senior leadership is way better than last year — night and day,” Bates said. “The seniors last year, the supposed leaders of our team, they were doing their own thing. When things went south, people kind of caved in.”

Bates isn’t the first player to say that. Beckman has put that message out there to the media since at least the spring.

But this year is starting to break bad enough on the field that one has to wonder if morale soon will break with it. It isn’t far from 3-4 to the sort of abject failure no amount of clever math can hide.


Twitter: @SLGreenberg

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