They say it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. But, really, for the Illini last season it was about how they started.
Illinois, which ended its second season under Tim Beckman with a 4-8 record, lost a lot of games early last season. The first quarter was a struggle for the Illini all year long, and they were outscored, 108-41, in the game’s opening 15 minutes. Only three times did they hold a lead at the end of the third quarter, and six times they were shutout in the first quarter. Additionally, they allowed 10 or more points in the first quarter five times.
Only thrice did they have a lead at the half, and often the halftime deficits were big ones. Five times, the Illini trailed by 10 or more at the half.
Even though the Illini didn’t really make up for it in the game’s later stages — they only outscored opponents in the second half three times — digging the early hole is hardly a recipe for success. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. That's why this season will also be all about how they start.
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Beckman realizes this problem and said Monday at Big Ten Media Day that it might have been confidence that played a part in the Illini being down before they could even get comfortable.
“I think it starts with belief,” he said. “I think if we stepped on the football field last year, I think that would’ve been a little bit of a question that we had. As the game progressed, the belief got, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ And as you look at our games last year, we never started fast. We have to start faster than we did last year to keep ourselves in games. So I think I feel that belief from this football team, mainly because of experience, mainly because of they’ve been together. … Communication, all those types of things I feel will make us a more confident football team.”
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Beckman thinks that problem has been fixed or at least improved upon heading into the 2014 campaign. And there should be some time to build that confidence, too. Illinois’ early season schedule should allow plenty of opportunity to gather up some victories.
Four of the Illini’s first six opponents are Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, Texas State and Purdue. A loss in any of those games would be a pretty huge disappointment, meaning a 4-2 start is not just realistic but almost expected. And the confidence built off that winning start could prove pivotal in potentially winnable games later in the season against teams like Minnesota and Penn State.
But, like in individual games, the season’s key will be a good start.