The Tim Beckman era at Illinois has been reduced to a series of what-ifs.
The Illini are coming off a highly dispiriting, 38-27 home loss to Purdue that has many fans calling for an abrupt end to the three-year Beckman tenure in Champaign. But Beckman isn't giving up hope on his 3-3 team.
“If we run the table, we end up with nine wins,” he said Monday at his weekly news conference.
That's technically true, but would you bet even a nickel on it? Illinois just gave up 551 total yards and 349 rushing yards to Purdue, which hadn't won a Big Ten game since 2012. The remaining schedule begins this week at Wisconsin, a team that has beaten the Illini by a combined 41 points the past two years and has a running game that could give Beckman's defense nightmares. The schedule then continues with games against Minnesota, at Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State and at Northwestern.
The what-if factor will likely save Beckman's job for now. I wrote this preseason that it could be bowl or bust for Beckman in 2014, and athletic director Mike Thomas can wait to see whether the Illini have a Hail Mary left in them to somehow garner at least three more wins and a postseason spot.
But there's nothing in the track record to suggest that is possible. Beckman is now 1-17 in Big Ten games, with the lone win coming last year in a squeaker over Purdue, which appears to have zoomed ahead of Illinois as a program. Beckman's talking points for this year centered on improving a defense that was one of the nation's worst in 2013. Instead, things have gone even farther downhill.
Illinois ranks 119th out of 125 FBS teams in rushing defense, allowing 249.5 yards per game on the ground. It is No. 112 in total defense. On Saturday, Purdue repeatedly turned plays that should have been short gains into back-breaking ones thanks to horrible tackling and atrocious angles taken by defenders.
Beckman, a former defensive coordinator whose background is on that side of the ball, surprised many last year by retaining embattled defensive coordinator Tim Banks. How has the Beckman-Banks partnership failed so miserably, when Bill Cubit was able to transform the offense into a solid unit?
"I feel we're staying with the same things we've done in the past that were successful," Beckman said Tuesday, noting his previous stints at places like Ohio State, Oklahoma State and Toledo. "We believe in what we're doing here."
The list of people who share that belief, however, appears to be rapidly thinning. The lack of success on the field and the small crowds at Memorial Stadium are enough to make one wistful for the Ron Zook days. As maligned as Zook was, his 18-38 Big Ten record looks glorious in comparison; he also took the team to a Rose Bowl and postseason appearances in the two years before Beckman arrived.
Why hasn't Beckman been able to turn the corner? Nathan Scheelhaase, who started at quarterback for Illinois from 2010 to 2013, was asked that question this week on the Tay and J Show on ESPN Radio in Champaign. Scheelhaase said that in 2012, many players were still upset that popular defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was not given the head-coaching job or retained by Beckman. During last year's 4-8 season, Scheelhaase said, the team just didn't have enough athletes.
"I think it's a buy-in thing at this point," Scheelhaase said. "I don't know if people have all the way, in that locker room, bought into everything coach Beckman has to say and everything about him. Any time you don't get a team to buy in, it doesn't matter how great a coach is or what exactly his plans are. They won't work out."
In fairness to Beckman, recent Illinois football history is littered with failed results. He has brought in some talented players to build around, including juco transfers Jihad Ward and Geronimo Allison and promising freshman Mike Dudek. But the overall depth hasn't been there.
"You have to have guys who can go and recruit, like Mike Locksley and Reggie Mitchell from the Ron Zook days," Scheelhaase said in that interview. "Chicago, for all it's worth, isn't a hotbed for talent. A bunch of Big Ten teams and Notre Dame recruits that area. So you have to have somebody who can go get a guy in Florida, go get a guy in Washington, D.C., and bring them to a place like Illinois. I don't know if there's a guy you can point to right now that has that ability."
Beckman still has six games left to prove he can get Illinois back up to respectability. But the team will have to play at least half those games without starting quarterback Wes Lunt, who is out four to six weeks with a broken leg.
So things look pretty bleak, especially after what might have been the most demoralizing loss in three years last week against the Boilermakers.
"If we take out 10 plays in that football game," Beckman said Monday, "it’s a different game."
Yep, that's where Illinois is right now: lamenting how only 10 big plays separate it from Purdue. And that's why Beckman and the Illini will likely be permanently separated very soon.