By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Thank goodness for that Labor Day holiday.
After all, it’s hard work watching the Illinois football team.
On Saturday under a sweltering sun in Champaign, Tim Beckman’s Fighting Illini managed to snap a nine-game losing streak. But they hardly shined while doing it against FCS foe Southern Illinois, escaping with a 42-34 victory only after a pass from Saluki quarterback Kory Faulkner sailed out of the back of the end zone on fourth-and-goal.
When the final horn sounded, dark clouds gathered via social media and blotted out the blue sky with many Illini fans venting their frustrations about game play – and game decisions – rather than celebrating the program’s first victory in 350 days.
Behold, Illinois football: Where even wins don’t feel like them.
And now three days removed from the season opener, here are three thoughts about Illinois football, looking both back and ahead.
Last Friday, I asked in a column, “What Does Tim Beckman Need To Do To Survive?”
The answer: Surely better than what we saw on Saturday.
Against the Salukis, we actually saw about what I expected (which was less than I hoped for). There was an improved passing game under the tutelage of new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. Nathan Scheelhaase earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors after throwing for a career-best 416 yards and two touchdowns.
There was an inexperienced defense that’s particularly vulnerable in the secondary. Faulkner also threw for 312 yards and three TDs for upstart SIU.
And, perhaps most significantly, there were coaching maneuvers that continue to baffle and bewilder. Case in point, with Illinois leading by only two scores in the fourth quarter, Beckman unwisely opted to insert third-string quarterback Reilly O’Toole into a game that was far from in hand.
O’Toole promptly committed a delay of game penalty and followed that with a fumble, providing the Salukis an opportunity to tie the ballgame. SIU’s final drive was then assisted by another maddening sideline interference penalty committed when Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks stepped onto the field mid-play.
As much as the Illini need to shore things up on the gridiron, the coaching staff also needs to get its act together on the sideline.
But we’ve been saying that for a while.
Making strides … where?
About that coaching staff …
As the man who fired befuddled coach Ron Zook only to hire befuddled coach Tim Beckman, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas was asked this weekend by the Chicago Tribune whether there’s a set number of games that his hand-picked coach needs to win in order to keep his job for 2014.
I believe that four victories would guarantee Beckman’s return, but Thomas said, “I don’t think you can quantify it. I’ve never done that. We know where we ended last year and certainly that’s not a place where I want to be. And that’s not a place where Tim and his staff and his student-athletes want to be. We’ve got to be better.”
That’s a given. But getting better is another question, and wins are a significant part of it, even Thomas won’t say so.
For his part, Beckman said: “I understand the game. I understand the likes of winning. We are making strides in this program. We didn’t make them on the football field (last year), but we are making tremendous strides with what we’re doing other things: academics, socially. We’re doing things right.”
During the mid-1990s, Lou Tepper’s Illini players also made strides academically and socially. That was great. But what Tepper’s Illini didn’t do enough of was win. That wasn’t great. Beckman can talk all he wants about making strides off the field, but – like Tepper – if his team can’t make them on the field as well, then he’s not doing his job.
It’s really that simple.
Good news, bad news
Looking ahead for the Illini, the good news is that the game on Sept. 28 against the Miami Redhawks, which fell 52-14 to Marshall on Saturday, appears to be winnable.
The bad news is that Illinois next two opponents, Cincinnati (which thumped Purdue 42-7) and Washington (which crushed Boise State 38-6) don’t appear to be.
In the Big Ten, one would also think that Illinois has a shot to beat Purdue, which appears to be struggling mightily under new coach Darrell Hazell. But that game in West Lafayette isn’t until Nov. 23 – nearly three months from now. So, who knows what kind of shape the Illini will be in – both mentally and physically – by that point?
Perhaps, however, we can ask the same about Purdue.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.