Badgers seek to keep Illini winless in league play
The Illinois football program stood atop the Big Ten mountain two years ago this week, toting a No. 16 ranking as it prepared to play host to an unusually substandard Ohio State team. It was a showcase afternoon game, and an Illini victory would have helped cement the team as a major player on the national scene at 7-0, including three conference victories.
What has transpired since that game has proven to be nothing short of disastrous.
Illinois lost to Ohio State. Then Purdue. Then Penn State. Then Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The slide was so steep that head coach Ron Zook was fired before the Illini could back their way into a middling bowl game.
Tim Beckman took over as coach last season and couldn't pull Illinois out of the muck. The Illini lost every Big Ten game by an average score of 35-12.
Two years since that impressive start and Illinois still hasn't won a conference game. Illinois (3-2, 0-1) will attempt to snap a 15-game Big Ten losing skid at 7 p.m. Saturday against No. 25 Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1) at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
Badgers wide receivers coach Chris Beatty has first-hand knowledge of the Illini's struggles. Last year, he served as the team's offensive coordinator under Beckman.
"It weighs on you," Beatty said. "You compete to win. You gameplan to win. That's why you work so hard and do all the things you do. Then it becomes one of those mindsets that, 'Oh, something bad is going to happen.'"
Beatty cited last year's Illinois-Wisconsin game in Camp Randall Stadium as a prime example of the team's inability to sustain excellence. During that game, the Illini trailed just 10-7 after three quarters. Then, running back Montee Ball scored a touchdown and Jared Abbrederis caught a 59-yard touchdown pass less than two minutes later, and the game was all but over. Illinois went on to lose 31-14.
"We played a pretty good first three quarters and had our opportunities, miss a couple field goals, then the air comes out in the fourth quarter because you're expecting something bad to happen," Beatty said. "And that happens a lot when you're trying to rebuild and trying to get over the top, I guess. They've been like that for a minute. Let's hope one more week like that."
Beckman, who is now 0-9 in Big Ten play following Illinois' 39-19 loss to Nebraska in this year's conference opener, has avoided bringing up the winless subject.
"We really haven't talked a whole bunch about it," Beckman said. "We've been stressing the positives and the things that we're doing better this year. Of course, it's probably on everybody's mind."
The opportunities for Illinois to snag an elusive conference victory appear to be few and far between this season. Wisconsin is a 13-point favorite on Saturday, and Illinois then plays at home against Michigan State, followed by road games against Penn State and Indiana and a home game against Ohio State. Illinois closes the season at Purdue and then with a home game against Northwestern.
Games against Indiana and Purdue are likely the Illini's best chance to win. If not, Illinois will end the season with the second-longest losing streak in Big Ten history at 22 games. Three teams have lost 19 consecutive Big Ten games, while Northwestern holds the all-time record for futility at 38 games (1978-82).
Of course, none of these numbers mean squat to Wisconsin's players, who need a victory to put themselves on a potential path toward a BCS game.
"I don't think a whole lot of convincing has to go on," Badgers linebacker Chris Borland said. "I think our guys understand their talent is pretty evident on film. They always have great players. They can play with anyone. I know it hasn't come together for them in the past in the Big Ten, at least recently, but that doesn't matter. It's a night game on the road against a good team. It will be easy to get up for."
Borland noted the play of Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who is putting together a solid senior season. Scheelhasse has thrown for 1,297 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Last season, he threw for 1,361 yards with four touchdowns and eight picks the entire year. He also is staying in the pocket to find big gains much more this season rather than scrambling for a couple of yards.
Wisconsin counters with quarterback Joel Stave, who is quickly developing into one of the top signal callers in the Big Ten. Stave ranks fourth in the conference in passing yards per game (216.2) and fifth in passing efficiency. Much of his success is predicated on the Badgers' famed play-action game set up by the talent of running backs Melvin Gordon (145.0 yards per game) and James White (95.7 yards).
"We know that Wisconsin is a very physical offense," Beckman said. "We've got to be able to create some pressure on the run game because they definitely are a team that sets up the pass through the run. We're going to have to gang tackle and tackle in space better than we did against Nebraska."
If not, Illinois will tack on another game to an embarrassing conference losing streak.
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