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posted: 10/4/2012 6:33 AM

Illini feeling familiar snowball headed downhill

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  • Penn State defensive end Sean Stanley runs down Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase during last Saturday's game in Champaign. The Nittany Lions won 35-7.

      Penn State defensive end Sean Stanley runs down Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase during last Saturday's game in Champaign. The Nittany Lions won 35-7.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois coach Tim Beckman is talking about a snowball effect these days, and it's easy to see why.

The Illini have been outscored 132-45 in three blowout losses, its defense shredded and its offense unable to move the ball until it's too late. The latest debacle came Saturday in a 35-7 loss to Penn State.

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"The last two weeks have been real, real tough, there's no question about it," first-year coach Beckman said Monday, leaving aside his team's first loss of the season, four weeks back at Arizona State. "It's been sort of a snowball effect that's happened in these football games."

Illinois (2-3, 0-1 Big Ten) plays Saturday at Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1), possibly the toughest team it has faced yet. And the next weekend it's on to Michigan. Losses in both games would leave Illinois looking at a very steep climb toward any bowl game.

Right now, Beckman doesn't want to think about Michigan, much less his bowl prospects.

"We're taking this (game) as a one-game season," he said.

All of this might feel familiar to Illini fans.

A year ago, Illinois lost six straight, a run which the players who were part of that team have said had a similar sort of snowball-down-hill feeling. It cost coach Ron Zook his job.

Starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase remembers that skid well. That was worse, he said, if for no other reason than the team still has a chance to break the bad run it's on.

"There's still a lot of season in front of us," he said.

Coaches and players alike say they're calling on lessons they learned last season if they were at Illinois, or losing streaks they've endured elsewhere, as they look for a way to win.

Scheelhaase's lesson? Stick together and don't point fingers.

So far "it's been a good locker room," he said.

Beckman's first season at Toledo included three tough losses, he said, and its own lessons he's now putting into practice.

"Communicate with your football players," he said. "Talk about it, find reasons."

One reason Beckman cites is injuries. He's been without several defensive starters in every game so far, and Scheelhaase is only now getting over a sprained ankle he suffered in the opener.

There are differences between this Illini season and the last, of course. A number of the names on the roster have changed, safety Suppo Sanni said. Penn State was Sanni's first game of the season. He's one of the many injured Illini Beckman talked about.

And the safety had a good game -- he had 10 tackles and broke up one pass -- one of a relatively small number of Illinois players who could say that.

Right now for Sanni, Illinois' season isn't a single game so much as a series of even smaller seasons -- one series at a time, he said. Sometimes a short memory comes in handy.

"I mean, I'm a DB, I have a snap-and-clear mindset," he said. "Whatever happened on the play before, it's not in my mind. If you worry about the play before, you're going to get beat again."

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