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Big Ten losing streak weighing on Illinois

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP)

(Eds: With AP Photos.)By DAVID MERCERAssociated Press

Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown was ready with his answer on Monday.

Asked how much the senior linebacker thinks about Illinois' 18-game losing streak in the Big Ten, he first tried to stay with the script.

''It's not something ...''

But then Brown paused, smiled a bit as he appeared to weigh the wisdom of saying what he was about to say, and said what you might have already guessed was true.

''I think about it a lot, to be honest,'' he said. ''It's what we work for.''

Brown and the Illini (3-5, 0-4 Big Ten) haven't won a Big Ten game in more than two years. Not since Oct. 8, 2011, to be exact. On the road at Indiana.

Illinois coasted - a verb not easily used to describe how the Illini have played in many games since - past the Hoosiers 41-20 in that one.

Illinois heads back to Indiana (3-5, 1-3) on Saturday for what appears to be the easiest of the four games left on their schedule. The other games are at Purdue and at home against Ohio State and Northwestern.

And as surprising as some may think it is for a team that's lost four straight and been stuck on three wins since September to be talking bowl games, Illinois is.

''In order for us to go to a bowl, we've got to get three of these next four games,'' Brown said. ''That's the main focus right now.''

Illinois' conference losing streak is not extreme by national standards. Kansas has lost 26 and counting.

And it's nowhere near the worst the Big Ten has seen. Northwestern lost 38 straight in the late 1970s and early `80s.

But with each loss, it gets a little tougher for the Illini to take.

No. 18, last Saturday at Penn State, added a little more pain than most, though.

The Nittany Lions won in overtime, 24-17, after trailing Illinois 17-14 late in the game. The Illini came back from an early 14-0 deficit.

Illinois has only come that close a couple of times in its string of Big Ten losses - last season at Purdue in a 20-17 loss and back in 2011 in its last trip to Penn State, a 10-7 loss.

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw an interception in the end zone that ended Saturday's loss, and stood and stared as Penn State celebrated.

''Having that comeback and really feeling like we were dominating them for most of the game, and not be come up with that one,'' he said. ''Yeah, it stung a little bit more than I guess some of them would.''

A dozen of the losses in the streak are on Tim Beckman's record. The second-year head coach isn't trying to talk down the importance of ending the streak, particularly before seniors such as Brown and Scheelhaase leave campus.

''It's big,'' Beckman said. ''I want these players to get it - it's not about me.''

NOTES: Beckman said starting tailback Josh Ferguson is fine after leaving Saturday's game with an injury. Ferguson, who became a starter just a few games ago, is getting used to the workload and all that goes with it, Beckman said. ''He's going to get more and more used to the toll it takes as a Big Ten back.'' ... Illinois is getting just 95.5 yards rushing a game in Big Ten play, and moving away from the run early in many games. Beckman says early deficits are to blame. Illinois trailed Penn State 14-0, Wisconsin 21-0 and Nebraska 17-0 before clawing back in each of those games. ... Loss aside, Brown sees a pretty big silver lining in the Penn State game for the weary Illini defense. ''I think it was probably the most complete game this season as far as defense. I think we really played our butts off.''

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Follow David Mercer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidmercerap

Tagged: Illinois, Penn State, Nathan Scheelhaase, Jonathan Brown

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