CHAMPAIGN — No one expected Tim Beckman to rip through his first season as University of Illinois football coach undefeated.
But there was a bit of urgency for Beckman and lead this team to at least a .500 season, which would lock up the school’s third consecutive bowl invitation. Call it modest optimism.
Ideally, Illinois would be 4-1 right now, having split the games with Arizona State and Louisiana Tech and having won at home against a Penn State team that should struggle to generate offense.
Instead, Illinois lost both of those key non-conference games and got run over by Penn State, 35-7. So instead of 4-1, it’s 2-3 going into Saturday’s game at Wisconsin
Why the urgency to make a positive mark this season?
Because looking to next season – and no one will blame you if you haven’t done that – there’s a feeling that the schedule becomes much tougher while the roster takes some key hits. The idea was for Beckman to build a little good will in his first season that might help him weather a more difficult second season.
Let’s start by looking at the 2013 schedule.
Illinois was going to have eight home games until one of them was moved to Soldier Field in Chicago, where Washington will be the opponent on Sept. 14.
Yep, that’s the same Washington that just upended No. 8 Stanford, the same Washington team coached by Steve Sarkisian, for former Southern California offensive coordinator. That’s Washington from the Pac-12, which has looked light years better than the Big Ten this season.
Nothing wrong with playing a game in Chicago. The exposure is great, but only if Illinois wins the game. Don’t count on it against the Huskies.
The other non-conference opponents are Southern Illinois, Cincinnati and Miami (Ohio).
The Salukis are 2-3 so far this season but seem to lack the bite that some of those Jerry Kill-coached teams had.
Cincinnati has had two very shrewd football coaching hires and current Illini AD Mike Thomas made them both. First he hired Brian Kelly, who’s now at Notre Dame. Once Kelly left he hired Butch Jones, whose current team is undefeated. Something tells me Jones comes to Champaign with a chip on his shoulder.
The final non-conference game is against Miami (Ohio), a Mid-American Conference school that is 3-2 so far this season. But those MAC opponents never go quietly.
Then the real fun begins.
The 2013 Big Ten Conference opener is at Nebraska. This will be Illinois’ first trip to Lincoln, Neb., since the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten. And just as Illinois will be reminded this weekend in Madison, they’ll find out what it’s like trying not to drown in a sea of red.
That game is followed by home game against Wisconsin and that one is followed by the homecoming game against Michigan State.
Opening Big Ten play against Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State is tough enough, but the fourth conference game is at Penn State. And in case you missed the message sent last week, the Nittany Lions will NEVER, EVER forgive Tim Beckman for trying to recruit their players.
This game is about revenge from here to eternity.
There’s a chance Illinois could find a bit of relief next Nov. 9 when Indiana comes to Memorial Stadium, but the three games that finish the season won’t be easy.
Ohio State comes to Memorial Stadium on Nov. 18. Then it’s a trip to Purdue followed by a home game against Northwestern.
It’s a good schedule for the fans, assuming there are still some interested in coming if this season doesn’t go well.
As for next year’s roster, Illinois loses some key players on defense. Michael Buchanan, Terry Hawthorne, Justin Green and Glenn Foster all graduate. And no one is sure whether current juniors Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown will be back. They may have NFL opportunities.
Offensively, the biggest losses are on the line where Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton are seniors.
Beckman has wasted no time feeding in his own recruits. True freshmen linebackers Mike Monheim and Mike Svetina played a ton against Penn State. And on Tuesday, Beckman said lack of depth on the defensive front means he’ll shove another true freshman into action at Wisconsin, either Floridian Teko Powell or Chicagoan Vontrell Williams.
The coach has to look ahead in case Spence and Foster are both gone next season,
Beckman says this team can not afford to look more than one game ahead, and he’s right. But we can, and a peek into the crystal ball is, frankly, a little scary.
2013 ILLINI SCHEDULE
Aug. 13 – Southern Illinois
Sept. 7 – Cincinnati
Sept. 14 – vs. Washington at Soldier Field, Chicago
Sept. 21 – Open
Sept. 28 – Miami, Ohio
Oct. 5 – at Nebraska
Oct. 12 – Open
Oct. 19 – Wisconsin
Oct. 26 – Michigan State (homecoming)
Nov. 2 – at Penn State
Nov. 9 – at Indiana
Nov. 16 – Ohio State
Nov. 23 – at Purdue
Nov. 30 – Northwestern