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Tim Beckman, Illini put up a fight in loss to Buckeyes

CHAMPAIGN IL - NOVEMBER 16: Nathan Scheelhaase #2 Illinois Fighting Illini passes against Ohio State Buckeyes Memorial Stadium November 16

CHAMPAIGN, IL - NOVEMBER 16: Nathan Scheelhaase #2 of the Illinois Fighting Illini passes against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium on November 16, 2013 in Champaign, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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Updated: November 16, 2013 9:54PM

CHAMPAIGN — This time, the improvement Tim Beckman keeps telling us is there was plain to see. It hasn’t always been during this frustrating, largely unsuccessful season.

Almost to the end, the Illini (3-7, 0-6 Big Ten) scratched and clawed toward what would’ve been the unlikeliest of victories against No. 3 Ohio State (10-0, 6-0), which entered the game as a 33-point favorite. Beckman’s team didn’t get there, but it managed to slash a 28-point first-half deficit to 12 midway through the fourth quarter. The Illini fell apart from there and lost 60-35, but surely they already had gained the Buckeyes’ respect.

“They continued to fight,” Beckman said.

Whether or not Beckman emerges from this game with more respect from athletic director Mike Thomas is another matter entirely.

Beckman and his staff coached as hard as their team played Saturday. During one unfortunate third-quarter sequence, they might have coached a bit too hard.

Trailing 35-21, the Illini faced a third-and-long near their own goal line, with Reilly O’Toole suddenly in for starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, whose chin strap had busted on the previous play. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit sent in a pass play, and O’Toole was sacked in the end zone for a safety.

“I probably should’ve called a timeout there to get Nathan back in the game,” Beckman said.

Cubit’s take was different.

“I had faith in [O’Toole],” he said. “You believe in kids.”

O’Toole never had a chance on the play. It was 37-21, and momentum swung back to the Buckeyes. That’s when Beckman and Cubit got into it on the sideline and had to be separated by fellow coaches.

Of course, video of the incident hit Twitter faster than you can say 20-game Big Ten losing streak. That made Beckman — who already had been criticized harshly during the ESPN telecast by analyst Brian Griese — look really bad.

Especially in light of previous embarrassing sideline incidents involving the second-year coach, specifically “Skoalgate” and a sideline-interference call in last season’s finale at Northwestern.

Beckman has demonstrated a real knack for the awkward moment.

“Never happened before in my career,” he said of the brouhaha.

Again, Cubit’s take was different. “Happens all the time,” he said.

Is there dysfunction on the staff? Beckman and Cubit say not in the least.

Regardless, Griese said that Beckman will be fired if the Illini lose their last two, at Purdue and against visiting Northwestern. Would Griese really know? Probably not. Thomas hasn’t given any clear indication about Beckman’s future, but the possibility Beckman is coaching for his job the rest of November certainly is real.

And every little bad thing only can hurt his cause.

The score was 47-35 midway through the fourth quarter, and things looked pretty good. The crowd — small as always — was engaged. The Illini were doing themselves proud. But OSU running back Carlos Hyde ran for two long, demoralizing touchdowns to make it 60-35.

Hyde rushed for 246 yards and became the fifth back this season to go over 200 and set a career high against the Illini. Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller added 184 yards on the ground.

Those numbers must be as bad for Beckman’s standing as a sideline mini-scuffle. His defense has been beyond awful.

But there’s fight in his players.

“It’s so disheartening when they don’t get that victory,” said Beckman, “because they’re fighting to the end.”

Their coach is, too.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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