After a remarkable start to its season, Illinois began Big Ten play with a thud.
Wins vs. Southern Illinois, Cincinnati and Miami (Ohio), plus a strong showing in just a 10-point loss to Washington gave Illini fans something to be happy about for the first time in the Tim Beckman Era. The Illini were doing it with an incredible offense, one turned from one of the nation's worst a year ago into one of the nation's best by new coordinator Bill Cubit. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase spent much of the season's first five weeks as the conference's top passer.
But then came last week's conference opener, a 39-19 loss to Nebraska that saw the Illini do nothing on either offense or defense, Scheelhaase silenced and an up-to-that-point flat-out bad Nebraska defense shine in dominant fashion.
So now, strangely heading into their second bye week in the last three weeks, it's up to Beckman to keep all that supposed improvement from unraveling thanks to one disastrous game.
"We played a tough, tough football team last week in Nebraska," Beckman said during Tuesday's Big Ten coaches teleconference. "You can see why they were in the championship game last year. I think coach (Bo) Pelini's done a great job with that program. I think our players fought to the end, I just think at times we were outmanned up front. We've got to continue to try to make strides this week as a football team to continue to get better. We're using this bye week (Tuesday) to work on things that we need to work on fundamentally-wise, and then we'll get after the Wisconsin game plan on Wednesday and Thursday."
Oh yeah, Wisconsin. Things aren't getting easier for the Illini any time soon. After this week's bye, it's the Badgers in Champaign followed by Michigan State. But instead of fretting at the prospect of his first Big Ten win likely being put off, Beckman's welcoming this very hard first few games of the Big Ten schedule as a measuring stick, seeing how his team plays against top talent as an indication of how far it's come.
"We've lost two football games to top 25 football teams. We're competing," Beckman said. "We take everything by quarter, so it's game-by-game, the Wisconsin game will be our last game of the second quarter. So we're just focusing in on Wisconsin. I think our players realize that our first three Big Ten opponents have been in the championship game the last two years with Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State, so they're able to evaluate how much we have progressed as a football program. Only one of those teams we played last year, it being Wisconsin. But I think this football program understands that we can only control what we can control, and that's getting ourselves better."
The Nebraska game was one of those growing pains for a program just playing its 17th game under Beckman. The head coach constantly talks about the youth on this year's team, and this bye week — or rather this series of bye weeks — is hardly helping, not that he's using it as an excuse.
"We didn't play like we would have liked to play last week, but I do think our football program is getting better," Beckman said. "And we are competing and doing things that are moving this program forward. As a coach, you kind of hate to get away from it because you're with a young football team and you'd like a young football team to stay in a schedule as much as possible."
The schedule — be it too frequently filled with byes or with extremely challenging competition — won't be Illinois' friend over the next few weeks. It wouldn't be a shock to see the Illini watch their once 3-1 record fall to 3-4 by the end of this tough stretch. But hopefully for the Illini, these measuring-stick games will be able to measure some steps in the right direction.