CHICAGO — Tim Beckman twice has taken the podium at Big Ten media day as Illinois’ football coach. Both times he welcomed the audience and opened his remarks with birthday wishes to his mother.
Both events took place on different days; the 2012 media session was held July 26 while this year’s event was on July 24. Yet both years Beckman told reporters that it was her birthday.
“Before I get started talking about football or Illini football, I’d like to do one thing. And that is today is my mother’s birthday,” Beckman said in 2012. “So I want to wish Pat Beckman a happy birthday.”
This July: “I wanted to make sure that everybody understands that my mother, my rock, it’s her birthday, and I wanted to wish her a happy birthday.”
Two different media days, two different birthday wishes on two different dates. So far zero Big Ten wins for the Illinois under Beckman. By the end of this season, he might need to convince his boss and Illinois’ prominent boosters he deserves another season. Like the birthday message, it may become a tough sell to a impatient group with the status quo.
The Fighting Illini have lost 14 straight Big Ten games — one shy of tying the school record — with the last eight coming under Beckman. They’re 3-19 since starting the 2011 season 6-0, and that year’s freefall cost former coach Ron Zook his job. But the 2011 Illini were competitive during Zook’s six-game Big Ten losing streak. Last year’s Illinois squad was not.
The Illini (2-10, 0-8 Big Ten) were outscored 281-94 in eight league games. They were favored only once — the home opener against Penn State — and that turned into a 35-7 defeat. Only once did Illinois battle within one score of its opponent, a 20-17 loss to Purdue. Overall, Illinois allowed more than 30 points eight different times and gave up at least 45 five times.
Illinois had talent, as demonstrated with four NFL draft selections this spring. In fact, acquiring NFL-caliber draft never was an issue with the Illini under Zook. In 2011 and 2012, seven Illinois players were drafted in the first three rounds. From 2008 through 2012, nine Illini were first- or second-round picks.
But top-line talent wasn’t the problem last year; it was filling in the gaps when injuries took place. Beckman said the team lost 400 offensive snaps because of injuries and more than 800 on defense.
“When we came in, I would say the inherited depth was an issue,” Beckman said. “I brought that up last year. We’ve been able to add 33 new faces, as I mentioned.
“Does that bring depth? There’s no question. We went out and got some junior-college football players that brought age to our program. Age, not in the fact that they’ve played Big Ten football, but they have played some brand of college, even though it’s junior-college football.”
At the end of spring, Beckman had four junior-college players listed among the two-deeps. Eric Finney was tabbed a starter at a hybrid linebacker/safety position, but he suffered a knee injury early in training camp and his status is unclear.
Illinois returns three-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, son of former Iowa cornerback Nate Creer. Scheelhaase has 36 career starts and 34 touchdown passes. But Scheelhaase took a step backward last year with four touchdowns and eight interceptions.
This year, Illinois returns almost every skill position player on offense. That includes leading rusher Donovonn Young, who ran for only 571 yards. Defense will be a problem with four of the team’s top seven tacklers leaving the program. Three were drafted by NFL clubs.
Illinois will need depth, whether it’s from junior-college transfers or incoming freshmen. In non-conference play the Illini face two 2012 bowl squads in Cincinnati and Washington. The Big Ten portion starts with bowl teams in Nebraska (road), Wisconsin (home) and Michigan State (home). Then Illinois travels to Penn State, where the Illini have won only once in school history. It’s possible Illinois could stretch its Big Ten winless streak to 18 before playing at Indiana, which thumped the Illini 31-17 last year.
Another winless Big Ten campaign could bring the streak to an embarrassing 22 straight. That’s nowhere near Northwestern’s 38 consecutive Big Ten losses from 1978 through 1982. But it would leave another blemish on an Illinois program filled with amazing highs (2001 Sugar Bowl, 2007 Rose Bowl) and mostly lows (nine losing seasons) since the millennium.
“One of the things that we talked about also as a group is we’re taking one challenge at a time in a very, very positive way,” Beckman said. “We’re not going to let negativity infiltrate the program. We’re going to be positive with a great passion toward what we want to get accomplished.”
Next summer’s Big Ten media day could land somewhere in July’s fourth week. For Beckman to again greet his mother with a public happy birthday, the Illini need to blow out the candles this fall and wish for a few more wins. Anything less could provide the Illinois with the unwanted gift of starting over.