Illinois ends season on 'all-time low'

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Illinois ends season on 'all-time low'

By Vinnie Duber
CSNChicago.com

EVANSTON -- A new era beckons, reads the T-shirt advertised on the Fighting Illinis official athletic site. The shirt features a picture of first-year head coach Tim Beckman.

Well, following the final game of the season -- a 50-14 loss to Northwestern on Saturday at Ryan Field -- Beckman is now Illinois second-year coach, and that new era is off to the same start as the previous one: without a single conference victory.

The loss sent the Illini to an 0-8 record in Big Ten play, the first winless conference schedule for Illinois since the first season of the Ron Zook era in 2005. Its the 14th time in school history the Illini have gone winless in conference play and the fourth since 1997.

Youre in this game for the players, Beckman said as he summed up the season. This game is an unbelievable game. You feel close to one another as a family. Kids coming over to your house and eating Thanksgiving dinner. All of those things. But the losing, really, it hurts. You want your kids to experience winning just like you want your sons to experience winning. We didnt experience winning this year. Its one of the hardest years Ive ever gone through.

Illinois loss in the battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy was marred by the same kinds of mistakes that sent them to losses in their first seven Big Ten contests. Too many turnovers and too many penalties told the story. A pair of Illini quarterbacks combined for three interceptions, and a fumble on a kickoff return led to Northwesterns first touchdown of the day.

The Illini racked up eight penalties in the first half, totaling 88 yards in damage. Among the infractions was a pair of sideline interference penalties on Beckman and something called illegal numbering.

We had too many penalties again, certain things that you cant do, and we ended up doing those things, Beckman said. Turnovers, penalties, not tackling as well as were capable of tackling. All together, it wasnt one of our better games again. When youre playing a team that has won football games and is considered one of the Top 25 or 30 teams in the country, then youre going to have to play a lot better than we did.

Its those types of mistakes that have the Illini sitting at the bottom of the Big Ten. They have turned the ball over 19 times, a conference high, and they rank last in turnover margin, at -11.

Illinois allowed 50 points for the third time this season, and Northwesterns 338 rushing yards were the second most an opponent posted all season. How bad was it for the Illini? The Wildcats fifth touchdown of the day was a pass to Paul Jorgensen, a sophomore offensive lineman. And he was wide open, too.

According to freshman running back Josh Ferguson, the Illinois locker room was at an all-time low. Junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase called the last four months the hardest of his life.

Weve been disappointed and frustrated for a while just because we havent been producing the way we wanted to, Scheelhaase said. Obviously you want to finish on a good note, but it didnt happen today. Its something youve got to deal with, something youve got to eat. You have to take that mindset into the offseason. Thats the only thing you can do.

Talking after the game, Scheelhaase and the Illini were obviously looking ahead, and the quarterback must have said the word learning about a dozen times. The Illini see this disappointing season as a learning experience.

You learn not only what it feels like to lose, but you learn how small a margin of error there is with winning and losing, Scheelhaase said. Whether its a mistake here or a mistake there, or them not making a mistake or you not capitalizing on a mistake that they make, you learn how fine of a difference there is or how much momentum can change the way a game goes, the way a season goes.

As the Beckman era heads into its first offseason, much talked about will be the coachs job security. But after the game, players and coaches alike spoke highly of him.

I think we definitely believe in the coaches, Scheelhaase said. I have no reason not to believe in these coaches to a man. Im sure as coaches theres a bunch of things they want to do different, and trust me, as a player theres a lot of things that we could have capitalized on, not just this game but this whole season.

No one likes to lose, said defensive coordinator Tim Banks. No one wants to put so much work in and not come home successful. One thing I know about him: Hes no quitter. Hes going to continue to work, continue to fight, and hes going to continue to demand we put guys in positions to be successful. I think thats what a great leader does. Hell be fine.

Its important to note that Zook remained on the job for six more campaigns following his winless debut effort in the Big Ten.

Beckman pointed out that it takes time to turn things around, and he noted Northwestern as an example. He mentioned that Pat Fitzgerald has spent seven years bringing the Wildcats to the point theyre at now: en route to their fifth consecutive bowl game.

Were going to go back and do our plan. The plan, it does work. It has worked. Didnt work this year, but there are reasons that it has worked and theres belief behind it, Beckman said. And you believe in the things you believe in and go with it and you make sure that you recruit players that believe in the same thing.

We have to move forward. Theres only one way you can go, is forward. So my coaching staff will be out on the road tomorrow, and were going to get it together and see what weve got to do to get players in here to the University of Illinois -- this great place, great institution, great football tradition -- and do what weve got to do to get this program back on top.

Michal Rozsival, Jordin Tootoo extensions give Blackhawks flexibility at expansion draft

Michal Rozsival, Jordin Tootoo extensions give Blackhawks flexibility at expansion draft

The Blackhawks agreed to one-year contract extensions with defenseman Michal Rozsival and forward Jordin Tootoo, the team announced Tuesday.

Rozsival's deal is worth $650,000 while Tootoo's deal carries a $700,000 cap hit, according to ESPN's Pierre LeBrun.

The move gives the Blackhawks two players eligible to be exposed during this summer's expansion draft.

NHL teams must expose two forwards and one defenseman that have played at least 40 games in 2015-16 or more than 70 in 2016-17, and they must be under contract in 2017-18.

[MORE: The Blackhawks' 9-1 February by the numbers]

Rozsival and Tootoo meet those requirements, which means the Blackhawks can now protect Ryan Hartman, who is also eligible.

They are allowed to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender or eight skaters (regardless of position) and one goaltender. 

Rozsival, 38, has one goal and one assist in 16 games this season, often serving as the team's extra defenseman. Tootoo, 34, has no points in 36 games.

NFL Scouting Combine represents opportunities — good and bad — for Bears

NFL Scouting Combine represents opportunities — good and bad — for Bears

The NFL Scouting Combine convening this week in Indianapolis isn't really the high point of pre-draft assessing being done by NFL teams. Those evaluations have been going on for many, many months — on college campuses, at bowl games — and will go on with Pro Days and selected visits to team headquarters.
 
But what it does represent is two things: a chance for teams to probe for detailed medical information on some 300 potential draftees, and a case study in savvy brand marketing by the NFL that has become its own hot-stove league on steroids (hopefully not literally for any of the participants).
 
Covering the event 25 years ago, representatives of the three Chicago-area newspapers comprised one of the two largest media contingents (the other being New York's) going about the business of football reporting after the sport had largely moved off the sports-front with the wrap-up of the Super Bowl. No TV, no internet, and the Combine operators really didn't want media around for what was set up as a purely team-centric.
 
Now the NFL has created a media event that keeps it in news prominence at what had always been a dormant calendar nadir for pro football, with not only some 1,000 media members and outlets welcome, but also with fans able to attend events like the 225-pound bench press and 40-yard dashes, whose results were once something that reporters dug around for as news scoops.
 
But beyond the observed events, including group media interviews for the majority of athletes, individual draft stocks will be affected by vertical jumps, cone drills and such. And by interviews with individual teams, which are still private. (For now. Somehow, it's not beyond imagination that someday even those will be televised, in an NFL guise of "transparency" or something, but that's for another time.)
 
Strengths, weaknesses and the QB conundrum
 
One annual refrain are the assessments of the overall draft class, what positions are its deepest, its weakest, an evaluation that carries some weight because invitees to the Combine include underclassmen, which the Senior Bowl does not.
 
But a danger within the process is exactly that — the "weight" assigned to results, particularly the on-field ones. On-field evaluations are the best indicators, but the right on-field ones were there on playing fields and now tape, not inside Lucas Oil Stadium this week.

[RELATED - Which direction will Bears go at pick No. 3?]
 
Combine performance has affected drafts rightly and wrongly over the years.
 
ProFootballTalk.com's Mike Florio has made an excellent case for players declining that test for reasons of confidentiality. And frankly, if teams have a problem with a player declining the test, then teams and the NFL need to do a better job of keeping the results in-house, particularly given that correlations between the Wonderlic and NFL success are questionable at best.
 
But some player or players will move up or slip down on draft boards because of drill work. That may be unfortunate for the player, and for the teams.
 
QB or not QB
 
It is at this point that the Combine becomes increasingly relevant to the Bears, or at least to those trying to discern what realistic chances exist for the Bears to address their well-documented areas of need (quarterback, tight end, cornerback, safety).
 
An inherent problem at this stage is the difficulty in arriving at a right decision, particularly at the paramount position. NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock did some checking that illustrates the issue.
 
Between 2007-14, teams selected 21 quarterbacks in the first round. Nine of them are no longer even in the league, and only a handful have achieved something close to the coveted "franchise" distinction: Matt Ryan in Atlanta, Matthew Stafford in Detroit, Carolina's Cam Newton, Andrew Luck in Indianapolis and Joe Flacco in Baltimore. Only Flacco has won a Super Bowl.
 
"It gives a pretty good feel for the 'hit' rate of franchise quarterbacks in the first round," Mayock said on Monday.
 
"My message to NFL teams is, 'you've got to keep trying, keep on swinging.'"
 
Whether the Bears take a swing at a franchise quarterback at No. 3 is still many weeks off. But Mayock didn't endorse making that swing at that point.
 
"I don't have any quarterbacks anywhere near the Top 10," Mayock said. "That doesn't mean I think there's no talent there, because I think there are four quarterbacks that have first-round talent. In my order I had for my initial Top 5, it was [DeShone] Kizer, [Deshaun] Watson, [Mitch] Trubisky, [Patrick] Mahomes. All four of them have holes in their games.
 
"I don't think any of them are ready to start Week 1."
 
More to come over the next week. Make that "weeks."