Tim Beckman will be the first to admit it: The Illini just aren't making plays when they need to.
That's the nice way of phrasing the unfortunate truth that Illinois made a lot of mistakes and missed a lot of opportunities in Saturday's 24-17 overtime loss to Penn State. After turning in a bunch of high-quality offensive drives and racking up plenty of offensive yards and defensively limiting one of the Big Ten's best passers, the Illini couldn't get points when they needed to, and they couldn't make stops at the most critical moments.
The game's final moments said it best. After Illinois took a 17-14 lead, Penn State marched right down the field. Nittany Lions running back Bill Belton then gift-wrapped a turning point, fumbling on the goal line and giving the ball over to Nathan Scheelhaase and the Illini offense with two minutes left. But instead of winding the clock down and picking up even one first down — which would have likely secured Beckman's first Big Ten win — Illinois went three and out. Penn State got the ball back, kicked a game-tying field goal, scored on a 3rd-and-16 pass play in its lone overtime possession, then picked off Scheelhaase to end the game.
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In other words, the Illini didn't make plays when they needed to.
"We all know that the game of football comes down to plays, and when those plays are made then you have a chance to win a football game," Beckman said during his weekly press conference Monday. "Well, we didn't make those plays that we needed to make in that football game, or the play was taken back from us because we had had a penalty or just not tackling, on a 3rd-and-16, being able to be in the proper leverage on a pass play to deflect the football in overtime. It comes down, the game of football — as we continue to learn as we go through this football season — it comes down to making those plays."
Of course to zero in on the final few minutes of Saturday's loss does not paint the whole picture. As Beckman mentioned, the Illini had problems making plays throughout the game. For the second week in a row, a touchdown was negated by a penalty. Scheelhaase's overtime interception was his second of the day. Several trips to the red zone ended without a touchdown.
A good case could be made that this shouldn't have been an overtime loss for Illinois and instead a win by a multiple-touchdown margin.
"It's frustrating," Scheelhaase said Monday. "I think it's one of those games you look back on and you feel like most everything was working. I was just thinking about it that night, it was one of those games you just wanted to keep going because you just felt like you were really having your way with them for the majority of the game. We had two three-and-outs there, and they really shouldn't have been. We got stopped. ... Besides that nearly every drive we had we were able to get things going. When we get down there ... we've got to all be able to step up and have each other's back and make plays for each other. ... It might not always be pretty down there, but one way or another we've all got to be able to step up and make plays and just keep that focus."
Still, in doing something that's become commonplace in Champaign, Beckman, Scheelhaase and the Illini were forced to draw positives from a loss. And, of course, there is the fact that Illinois came closer to a conference victory Saturday then most any other time in the past two seasons. The ease at which they moved the ball hasn't been seen since the 3-1 non-conference glory days of early 2013. Scheelhaase threw for more than 300 yards. The defense looked good against the pass, something that couldn't be said after prior contests.
"Yes we did get better," Beckman said. "Nothing's good about a loss, as I always say, but I think as a football team we got better this last weekend, and I expect and look forward to the next four weeks and this football team progressing each and every week because they sure showed that on Saturday that they're going to fight till the bitter end."
Scheelhaase took a different approach, complimenting the attitude of his teammates.
"I think we saw progress," the quarterback said. "I think we stood in there and competed on the road. We got down a little bit there in the first half and were able to come back and have a lead there in the second half. I think we saw a lot. I think we really saw just a bunch of dudes competing their butts off from start to finish, and that's always worth something. That's ultimately what we all want out of this deal is to be surrounded by a bunch of dudes who care as much as the guys to the left and to the right. And I think that's what I felt out there on the field, and that's what everybody that was involved with that kind of felt."
Of course, there won't be too much positivity to take from a game until it ends with the Illini on top. And that day could be coming soon. Purdue's place on the list of Illinois' remaining opponents all but guarantees it with the way the Boilermakers have played this season. And upcoming games against Indiana's easily picked apart defense and the reeling Northwestern Wildcats, still without a conference win this season, could also be opportunities for Illini victories. Think, if they win all three, they'll go to the postseason.
But one is all this team is looking for at present. To get that elusive win, however, the Illini will have to do something they couldn't do against Penn State: make plays.