Illinois ends season on 'all-time low'

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Illinois ends season on 'all-time low'

By Vinnie Duber
CSNChicago.com

EVANSTON -- A new era beckons, reads the T-shirt advertised on the Fighting Illinis official athletic site. The shirt features a picture of first-year head coach Tim Beckman.

Well, following the final game of the season -- a 50-14 loss to Northwestern on Saturday at Ryan Field -- Beckman is now Illinois second-year coach, and that new era is off to the same start as the previous one: without a single conference victory.

The loss sent the Illini to an 0-8 record in Big Ten play, the first winless conference schedule for Illinois since the first season of the Ron Zook era in 2005. Its the 14th time in school history the Illini have gone winless in conference play and the fourth since 1997.

Youre in this game for the players, Beckman said as he summed up the season. This game is an unbelievable game. You feel close to one another as a family. Kids coming over to your house and eating Thanksgiving dinner. All of those things. But the losing, really, it hurts. You want your kids to experience winning just like you want your sons to experience winning. We didnt experience winning this year. Its one of the hardest years Ive ever gone through.

Illinois loss in the battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy was marred by the same kinds of mistakes that sent them to losses in their first seven Big Ten contests. Too many turnovers and too many penalties told the story. A pair of Illini quarterbacks combined for three interceptions, and a fumble on a kickoff return led to Northwesterns first touchdown of the day.

The Illini racked up eight penalties in the first half, totaling 88 yards in damage. Among the infractions was a pair of sideline interference penalties on Beckman and something called illegal numbering.

We had too many penalties again, certain things that you cant do, and we ended up doing those things, Beckman said. Turnovers, penalties, not tackling as well as were capable of tackling. All together, it wasnt one of our better games again. When youre playing a team that has won football games and is considered one of the Top 25 or 30 teams in the country, then youre going to have to play a lot better than we did.

Its those types of mistakes that have the Illini sitting at the bottom of the Big Ten. They have turned the ball over 19 times, a conference high, and they rank last in turnover margin, at -11.

Illinois allowed 50 points for the third time this season, and Northwesterns 338 rushing yards were the second most an opponent posted all season. How bad was it for the Illini? The Wildcats fifth touchdown of the day was a pass to Paul Jorgensen, a sophomore offensive lineman. And he was wide open, too.

According to freshman running back Josh Ferguson, the Illinois locker room was at an all-time low. Junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase called the last four months the hardest of his life.

Weve been disappointed and frustrated for a while just because we havent been producing the way we wanted to, Scheelhaase said. Obviously you want to finish on a good note, but it didnt happen today. Its something youve got to deal with, something youve got to eat. You have to take that mindset into the offseason. Thats the only thing you can do.

Talking after the game, Scheelhaase and the Illini were obviously looking ahead, and the quarterback must have said the word learning about a dozen times. The Illini see this disappointing season as a learning experience.

You learn not only what it feels like to lose, but you learn how small a margin of error there is with winning and losing, Scheelhaase said. Whether its a mistake here or a mistake there, or them not making a mistake or you not capitalizing on a mistake that they make, you learn how fine of a difference there is or how much momentum can change the way a game goes, the way a season goes.

As the Beckman era heads into its first offseason, much talked about will be the coachs job security. But after the game, players and coaches alike spoke highly of him.

I think we definitely believe in the coaches, Scheelhaase said. I have no reason not to believe in these coaches to a man. Im sure as coaches theres a bunch of things they want to do different, and trust me, as a player theres a lot of things that we could have capitalized on, not just this game but this whole season.

No one likes to lose, said defensive coordinator Tim Banks. No one wants to put so much work in and not come home successful. One thing I know about him: Hes no quitter. Hes going to continue to work, continue to fight, and hes going to continue to demand we put guys in positions to be successful. I think thats what a great leader does. Hell be fine.

Its important to note that Zook remained on the job for six more campaigns following his winless debut effort in the Big Ten.

Beckman pointed out that it takes time to turn things around, and he noted Northwestern as an example. He mentioned that Pat Fitzgerald has spent seven years bringing the Wildcats to the point theyre at now: en route to their fifth consecutive bowl game.

Were going to go back and do our plan. The plan, it does work. It has worked. Didnt work this year, but there are reasons that it has worked and theres belief behind it, Beckman said. And you believe in the things you believe in and go with it and you make sure that you recruit players that believe in the same thing.

We have to move forward. Theres only one way you can go, is forward. So my coaching staff will be out on the road tomorrow, and were going to get it together and see what weve got to do to get players in here to the University of Illinois -- this great place, great institution, great football tradition -- and do what weve got to do to get this program back on top.

Jonathan Toews donates $1 million to community center in Winnipeg

Jonathan Toews donates $1 million to community center in Winnipeg

Jonathan Toews was the highest paid player in the NHL this past year, and he's giving back to the community that helped him become one of the best players in the league.

The Blackhawks captain donated $1 million to the Dakota Community Centre in Winnipeg, where he was born and raised, making it the largest ever private donation to a community centre in Manitoba.

“From my earliest days playing hockey, Dakota Community Centre has always played a pivotal role in my upbringing and my career," Toews said in a statement. “Today, I continue to be honoured to have my name associated with the Sportsplex on the Dakota campus. My parents have instilled in me the importance of giving back, and I believe that in supporting Dakota, we will see endless possibilities for the Community Centre’s future and transformation in the lives of our community members.”

[SHOP: Buy a Jonathan Toews jersey here!]

Toews will also serve as the honorary chairman for the Dakota Futures Capital Campaign, which will support the construction of a new 60,000-square-foot, $20-million fieldhouse and future development of the campus.

The fieldhouse will include a 30,000-square-foot gymnasium that will contain multiple court sports, such as basketball and volleyball, sport training and conditioning, all of which will be connected to the Jonathan Toews Sportsplex. It's expected to open in the fall of 2017.

The Sportsplex was named in Toews' honor in 2010, and includes two indoor ice rinks, a gymnasium, and strength training facilities, among others.

“We are so proud that Jonathan has chosen to give back to the community in this way," said Toews' parents Andrée Gilbert and Bryan Toews. "Our family has such fond memories of hockey practices and friendships made at the Dakota Community Centre. We look forward to the opening of the new Fieldhouse and the continued growth of the Dakota  campus. Through programs for all ages and acting as a gathering place in our community, the Dakota Community Centre transforms thousands of lives each year."

Expansion of the College Football Playoff field continues to seem inevitable

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USA TODAY

Expansion of the College Football Playoff field continues to seem inevitable

There were six teams deserving of reaching the College Football Playoff this season. But there were only four spots.

But what if there were more spots?

An expansion of the Playoff field to eight teams has seemed inevitable from the day the four-team system was announced. Four more Playoff games means oodles more TV viewers, which means oodles more dollars.

And then we wouldn't be having all these arguments, either — but that's nonsense because of course we would, trying to figure out who got snubbed from the expanded bracket.

But this season's emphasis on the conference-champion debate might kick the efforts to expand the Playoff into high gear. Just take it from NCAA president Mark Emmert.

Now, technically speaking, there are 10 FBS conferences, each of which crowns a champion at the end of every football season. Emmert is obviously referring to the Power Five conferences: the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, Pac-12 and SEC. He might want to pick his words a bit more carefully, considering he represents the other five conferences — the American, Conference USA, the MAC, the Mountain West and the Sun Belt — too, but his point remains understood.

This season has sparked a ton of controversy as the Playoff selection committee opted for the first time to include a team that did not win its conference, Ohio State, and it picked the Buckeyes over the Big Ten champs, Penn State. Plus, Big 12 champion Oklahoma was passed over in favor of non-champion Ohio State, too, actually falling behind another non-champion from the Big Ten, Michigan, in the final Playoff rankings.

With that decision brought the reasonable question of how much a conference championship should matter in getting a team into the final four and competing for a national championship.

The Playoff committee's mission is to pick the country's four best teams, and there aren't many people out there that will argue that Ohio State isn't one of the country's four best teams. But there's something to be said for winning a conference championship because if the Buckeyes can waltz into the Playoff without even playing in the Big Ten title game, why even have a conference championship game — besides, obviously, earning one more night of big-time TV money.

And so the call for an expanded Playoff bracket has reached perhaps its greatest volume in the short time the Playoff has existed. The obvious solution to Power Five conference champions continually being boxed out is to lock in five spots on the bracket for the five conference champions. Then, guarantee a spot for the highest-ranked team from the Group of Five conferences, and you're left with two "at-large" spots that this season would've gone to Ohio State and Michigan, two of the highest-profile programs in the country sure to drive TV viewership in battles against conference-champion Alabama, Clemson, Washington, Penn State and Oklahoma teams. And P.J. Fleck's undefeated Western Michigan squad takes the final slot.

That's quite the field. But if you think it would've solved all this year's problems, you're wrong. Still there would've been outcry that red-hot USC didn't make the field. The Trojans are playing so well that they could very well win the whole thing, despite their three early season losses. That debate over snubs will exist forever, no matter the size of the field, something we see play out each and every season in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Also, what a damper an expanded bracket would put on the final few weeks of the regular season. Ohio State's game against Michigan, the highest-rated game of the college football season with more than 16 million people watching, would've been effectively meaningless. No matter who won or lost, both teams would've made that eight-team field, right?

Additionally, another round of Playoff football would expand the season to 16 games for some teams. That means more physical demands on student-athletes and a season cutting deep into January, which would impact their educational and time demands.

But again, an expansion of the Playoff bracket has always seemed inevitable. There's too much money to be made, and at the same time fans seem to be all about that idea. People love the postseason for good reason, and the win-or-go-home nature of the NFL playoffs make those games the most-watched sporting events of the year.

Now the NCAA president is chiming in with hopes of an expanded field. So really isn't it just a matter of time?