Could this be the week?
It's been a long time since the Illini have won a Big Ten game, 20 games to be exact. That last win came on Oct. 8, 2011, at Indiana. Well, another trip to the Hoosier State might be just the right time for Illinois to get off this years-long skid.
The Illini travel to play Purdue this weekend, and the league-worst Boilermakers have provided a punching bag for just about every team they've faced this season. No team in the Big Ten is scoring less (12.7 points per game) than Purdue this season, and only Indiana is allowing more points each week than the 1-9 Boilermakers (38 per game).
So is this the week the Illini break out of the slump?
"I think we've prepared like every week should be the week," Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said at the team's weekly media availability on Monday. "Obviously, playing in this conference, you're going to play great teams each and every week. Going against Purdue, it's going to be no different of a mind set in the way we prepare. I've really been feeling these last three weeks that we've been preparing like champions and really putting everything and investing everything into each game, and obviously we'll do the same going into this week. Hopefully at the end of the 60 minutes on Saturday, we'll come out with the win. But they'll be as ready as any team all year."
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Those are perhaps overly kind words for a Purdue team that has played the way it has this season. One more stat: The Boilermakers are rushing for 65.4 yards per game. That's 654 yards on the season, fewer than 10 individual conference rushers.
But Scheelhaase and the Illini certainly have their own reasons not to take Purdue lightly. The two teams have the same conference record. Illinois has made mistake after mistake as it's continued to go winless, and that includes in Saturday's 60-35 loss to Ohio State, a game that despite that blowout final score was within reach for the Illini. But those same mistakes kept Illinois from staging a massive upset in Champaign.
Head coach Tim Beckman is still looking for his first Big Ten win, and though things haven't gone well in his two years, he seems to know the opportunities over the next two weeks (Illinois ends the season against Northwestern, also currently winless in conference play) are ripe for the taking.
"I am very proud of the fact that this coaching staff, this football team and everyone involved in this program is fighting, and the words 'Fighting Illini' come about every time we step out on the field," Beckman said at his weekly press conference Monday. "That is one thing I want to stress, no it's not a win, and we're battling, and we're trying, and we're doing everything we can to get these seniors to experience a victory in the Big Ten. We've got two opportunities left, and that's exactly how we're looking at it. We have one this weekend in West Lafayette against Purdue, and then, of course, we have the rivalry down here at Memorial Stadium. Our players are very excited about moving this program forward; I think we have and I think we will fight and strive to get that first win in the Big Ten."
For the most part this season, Beckman and his coaches have stayed positive. But when another opportunity slipped away Saturday, the head coach was seen shouting at offensive coordinator Bill Cubit on the sidelines. The frustration is obviously there. It's Beckman and the other coaches who Scheelhaase said he wants to win for the most.
"Just our coaching staff in general," the senior quarterback said. "Coaches have really put their heart and soul in everything we've been doing. They're definitely deserving with what they've been doing. That's what we'll try to go out there and make plays for, for those guys.
"Just to see them be able to have some joy would be nice."
Maybe this will be the week.