- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Two years ago today, Illinois lost 17-7 to Ohio State at home. It was not a pretty game, as the Buckeyes won despite having true freshman quarterback Braxton Miller complete only one pass in four attempts, though that one completion did go for the game's first touchdown.
That 2011 loss was a tough one for the Illini, which came into the game 6-0 and ranked No. 16 in the country. It did not, however, seem like the end of the line.
"We have got to regroup, and we're still in a position to control our own destiny," then-coach Ron Zook said after the game. "I think our guys have to understand that and they do."
Since then, of course, destiny has been very unkind to Illinois when it comes to Big Ten play.
The program has not won a conference game since Oct. 8, 2011, against Indiana, a winless streak that has now reached 15 games. That's tied for the seventh-longest conference losing streak in Big Ten history, and if the Illini can't find a way to beat Wisconsin at home this Saturday, they will tie for the sixth-longest losing streak with Iowa, which dropped 16 straight from 1964-1966.
Don't worry, the all-time record remains safe. Northwestern set the inglorious standard by losing 38 straight Big Ten games from 1978-82. That's the longest conference losing streak in the history of the five power leagues.
The beginning of the streak cost Zook his job at the end of the 2011 season. Second-year head coach Tim Beckman went winless in league play last season as part of a 2-10 season, and Illinois lost its conference opener to Nebraska 39-19 two weeks ago.
The Illini are clearly improved in 2013 and should be far more competitive in Big Ten action than they were in 2012. Still, the losing streak remains an albatross for the program. Beckman says it's not something he addresses often.
"We haven't really talked a whole bunch about it," he said Tuesday. "We've been stressing the positives and the things we're doing better this year, trying to move our program forward. Of course, it's probably [on] everybody's minds. But our focus right now is to get our football team better."
Senior safety Earnest Thomas told The (Springfield, Ill.) State Journal-Register that he uses the streak as fuel.
"I think it’s good to keep it as a motivating factor," Thomas said. "You don’t ever want to get too caught up in all that stuff, but I think it’s definitely something, especially for those guys who were around, because some of these guys weren’t even on the team or they may have redshirted, so they didn’t take it the same way we might have taken it."
Wisconsin is probably not the team Illinois wants to see in its effort to break the streak. The Badgers just curb-stomped Northwestern 35-6 and have won three straight against the Illini -- all by double digits -- and seven of the past eight in this series. What's worse is that Beckman's defense gave up 335 rushing yards at Nebraska two weeks ago and now faces a similarly high-powered running game in the Badgers.
"We're going to have to gang tackle and tackle in space better than we did against Nebraska," Beckman said.
Things don't get a lot easier for Illinois after this week, as Michigan State comes to Champaign on Oct. 26, followed by a trip to Penn State on Nov. 2. But there will be chances to end the losing streak next month when the team visits Indiana (Nov. 9) and Purdue (Nov. 23).
The Illini want to get this streak over with sooner rather than later. Five more conference defeats would give them the second-longest Big Ten losing streak of all time. That is some history the team would rather not make.
But there is some precedent here and reason for hope. After snapping a 15-game conference losing streak in 1998, the '99 Illini went 8-4 and won a bowl game.
And if you're wondering, here are the Big Ten's longest losing streaks (courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info):
1. Northwestern: 38 (1978-82)
T-2. Indiana: 19 (1959-62)
T-2. Minnesota: 19 (1982-84)
T-2. Wisconsin: 19 (1989-91)
5. Northwestern: 17 (1913-15)
6. Iowa: 16 (1964-66)
T-7. Indiana: 15 (1995-96)
T-7. Illinois: 15 (1996-98)
T-7. Illinois: 15 (2011-present)
And here's the longest conference losing streaks for the power leagues (courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info):
Big Ten: Northwestern 38 (1978-82)
ACC: Duke 30 (1999-03)
Big 12: Baylor 29 (1998-01)
Pac-12: Oregon State 20 (1979-82)
SEC: Sewanee 36 (1933-39)