CHAMPAIGN — The term “snowball” was used a lot after Illinois’ 42-3 loss to Michigan State on Saturday. As in, “How do you keep the season from snowballing?”
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After losing 17 consecutive Big Ten games, the question seems a little funny for Illinois, but it is not exactly out of left field.
Despite the losses, the Illini have proven they can hang with the best, putting up 32 points against Wisconsin, the league’s second-best defense. But Illinois' own defense has been abysmal all year long, only saved from being the worst in the conference by Indiana’s incompetence.
After losing top wideout Ryan Lankford (shoulder) — probably for the season according to head coach Tim Beckman — the Illini offense looks as though it might be in trouble as well.
The problem with the Illini defense is not hard to diagnose. Aside from Jonathan Brown, the team lacks any impact players, and with the absence of V’Angelo Bentley (foot injury), the Illini secondary often featured three true freshmen.
With the loss of Lankford, the Illini receivers have a similar problem. After Lankford on the depth chart are seniors Miles Osei (a converted quarterback) and Steve Hull (who played as a safety last year) and a litany of underclassmen. In some formations on Saturday, the receiving options included true freshman and walk-on players.
Beyond simply getting reps, the answer on how to solve the team’s issues was simple: fundamentals. Both defensive coordinator Tim Banks and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit stressed that doing the little things, and doing them well, was all this team could do to improve.
“We have a tough team and a good group of leaders that will keep the guys moving forward,” Banks said of the defense. “We have to continue to work on the details of every coverage, every front, just everything you need to be a good defense. Then you continue to stay the course and work hard and get better.”
“We have to keep giving different looks. There’s a lot of stuff on tape right now from the beginning of the year, so we have to just go out there and execute,” Cubit said. “We’ll probably be a little more physical, there’s a lot to work on, but we’ll just get back out there.”
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Executing those fundamentals is easier said than done, as the defense has proven throughout the Big Ten schedule thus far. Everyone in orange and blue is accountable, though, and Beckman intends to push the team as hard as he can.
“Made the team promise the seniors they’d work to get better. They’re young and they have got to have this experience,” he said. “Only one way to go, take this challenge and move forward.”
If the team cannot overcome its issues, though, the way forward could be very long — much like the second half of the Michigan State game.