Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit called Saturday's performance a "disaster."
The Illini didn't get into the end zone once in a 42-3 pounding at the hands of Michigan State, something that might not have been too surprising given the Spartans' nation-best defense. But the performance of the Illini defense could have borrowed Cubit's characterization, too. That Michigan State team, for all its defensive dominance, has not flourished on offense this season, and 42 points — 28 coming in the second half — was a bit of a shock.
"I know we didn't play good enough, that's the bottom line," defensive coordinator Tim Banks said Monday during the team's weekly media availability. "Those guys were out there as many snaps as we were, and for whatever reason we didn't get it done. We can't let that happen."
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The Illinois defense has not been sharp really at all this season, with the best performance coming in that 45-17 win over Cincinnati that spring boarded the Illini into that early-season positivity. But since the last win against Miami (Ohio), Illinois has allowed point totals of 39, 56 and 42 in three straight losses, with Big Ten opponents putting up big day after big day.
It's meant the further postponement of head coach Tim Beckman's first conference victory, and it's meant a test to his team to try and keep its collective head up as things have slipped so quickly back into last year's doldrums.
"You've just got to have a positive mind set, week to week, and just try to get better. That's what we have to do, we have to stay positive," defensive end Houston Bates said. "We still have winnable games on our schedule, we know that, and if we can do that we can go to a bowl, still do good things here."
And the defense did grab some positives from the way it played in the early going Saturday before that contest turned into a rout. The Spartans offense was forced to punt on its first drive, and quarterback Connor Cook fumbled on the second. A scoreless first quarter for Michigan State left the Illini defense feeling pretty good.
"For the first time, I can say we played a complete quarter of football where we went out and we imposed the will," linebacker Jonathan Brown said. "The second quarter, I thought we had the potential to do that, we just didn't get off the field on third down. That's what killed us that second quarter. Coming out of halftime we just didn't do what we needed to do to put up a stop. I think that's something we definitely can build on, looking at those first two quarters and just going from there."
The Illini are playing some of their poorest football of the season, a campaign that started with such promise with a 3-1 non-conference record and a rebuilt and suddenly electrifying offense. So what's this week's silver lining?
The team next up on the schedule, Penn State, is coming off a loss worse than any Illinois has suffered this season. While the Nittany Lions have shown their own flashes of brilliance, Saturday's 63-14 loss to Ohio State was not one of them.
The Illini might have a challenge on their hands when they go to Happy Valley this week, but at least they'll be taking on a foe trying to pick up the pieces after a blowout the same way they are.
But the Lions do have freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg, one of the best in the Big Ten this season, and some other offensive weapons that could pose a problem to a defense that hasn't had much luck stopping anyone, especially if they're wearing a Big Ten logo on their jersey.
"The quarterback, to be a young pup, I think he's really good. He's going to be special," Banks said. "They've got a great wideout (Allen Robinson) back there, and they're really, really good up front, a lot of guys back. They're balanced. They throw it pretty good and also run it effectively. Not as much power game as we've seen in the past, but they do a good job in their zone schemes and their play-action pass game."
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The environment of Beaver Stadium might be another factor, as more than 100,000 fans dressed in white could impose their will on the visiting Illini. That, though, is something Brown is not just unconcerned with, it's something he's looking forward to.
"I enjoy playing at Penn State," Brown said. "It's definitely, as far as a competitor, it's a fun place to play. I think I'm 1-1 there, so I'm looking to go and get my second win there and have a winning record in Happy Valley.
"It's unique to Penn State. Happy Valley is one of those places where you hear about and you just enjoy going to."
While it remains to be seen how enjoyable things will be for the Illini at Penn State, three wins is all it will take to get the Illini to the postseason. And when Bates said there were "winnable games" left on the Illinois schedule, he was telling the truth. The game against Purdue, even if things continue to go poorly for Illinois, would figure to be the perfect opportunity for Beckman's first Big Ten win. Add in games against Indiana and Northwestern, two teams who have struggled mightily in conference play, and opportunities certainly do exist for Illinois to reach a bowl game.
"We are ready for the final five weeks of this football season, realizing that one of our goals, which is to get to a bowl game, is still achievable," Beckman said. "It's one game at a time, and we've got a five-game season in front of us."