Illinois adjusts focus after much-needed off week
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — If any team needed last week off, it was Illinois.
The Illini (2-5, 0-3 Big Ten) have lost four straight by a combined 163-45, including a 45-0 shutout at Michigan. They've spent much of their season without starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, lost first to an ankle sprain and then to a concussion. And they've seen their opening-day goal — to win a spot in the Big Ten title game — torn down and replaced by the hope that they can just beat Indiana (2-5, 0-3) Saturday in Champaign.
The week off has the Illini in better health, first-year coach Tim Beckman said Monday. Both Scheelhaase and starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne — another player who missed time with a concussion — are back and at full speed, and starting linebacker Jonathan Brown has recovered from an ankle injury that's limited him for weeks.
Beckman said the week off also provided a chance to evaluate his team and himself. He didn't have much good to say about his own performance.
"Two and five's not going to get any pluses anywhere," he said.
But his players, he insists, aren't far from making big plays on both sides of the ball. So coaches used the bye to sit down and concentrate with the team on plays that have gone wrong, and show them how close they were to going right.
"Make the tackle in the hole and it doesn't go for 40 (yards) or whatever it did," Beckman said of a hypothetical play gone wrong. "It was very important for our players to see that success is just a step away if we do it the way we're supposed to do it."
That focus on what's gone wrong and why, offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic said, has been helpful for a team that has spent weeks wondering why things have gone so badly wrong this season. He said those answers also have helped keep players together who might otherwise resort to blaming each other.
"I think when you're losing, what happens is guys start to blame each other and they don't really know what's going wrong. So Coach Beckman sat us down and said, `Look, this is how close we are on certain plays. This little thing happens and we go for 20 yards on this play instead of taking a loss,"' Cvijanovic said.
"Even we as players don't realize that a lot of times."
After spending months stressing the long view and the Dec. 1 conference title game — Beckman until recently peppered his interviews with references to playing on 12-1-12 — the coach says he's now told his team to focus on a single game.
In hindsight, Cvijanovic said, the team probably should have taken that approach from the beginning.
"I think maybe we got away from that a little bit with the Big Ten championship — we want to go to the Big Ten championship, the 12-1-12 thing," he said. "I think it would have been maybe better to take one day at a time from the start, and say `Hey, we're gonna' win this day, win this game."'
Indiana will come to Champaign looking to end its own five-game losing streak, but the Hoosiers' losses haven't looked like Illinois'.
Indiana dropped its last three by less than three points a game, coming that close to knocking off Ohio State, Michigan State and Navy.
Saturday's game is a must-win for Illinois, if the team wants to make it to a third-straight bowl game, linebacker Ashante Williams said, allowing himself a quick look beyond Saturday.
"If we lose another game," he said, "I kind of figure we're mathematically out of the bowl picture. So it's do or die."
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