Fitting End to a Long Season

Illinois lost to Northwestern in fitting fashion, losing big in a game that was once competitive.

EVANSTON, Ill. – Northwestern fans, those who didn't leave to get the postgame party started early Saturday, laughed and pointed and cheered and hollered watching Bo Cisek.

Never heard of Cisek? He's a fifth-year walk-on defensive lineman for the Wildcats. He's played in 14 career games and has one tackle.

Near the end of the 50-14 beat down of rival Illinois, coach Pat Fitzgerald inserted the 290-pounder on offense in the red zone, at running back no less. And he handed him the ball. Twice.

The fans were doing their part to help Cisek score a touchdown, which in turn added to Illinois' embarrassment. Cisek came close on his first carry. He fumbled the second try, as fans in purple and black moaned and groaned at the missed opportunity to one day talk about the time a lesser used player's touchdown made a mockery of the Land of Lincoln rivalry.

Insult to injury. A comedy of errors. Whatever you choose to tab the last loss of this long season, it was a fitting end for the Illini. What was originally a back-and-forth game turned into a blowout loss thanks to turnovers, penalties, poor tackling and big plays given up.

"You're going to have to play a lot better than we did," coach Tim Beckman said.

The Illini found some new ways to set themselves back, too. Beckman was flagged twice for sideline interference – once for being overcome with emotion after a successful pass and catch, the second time for being knocked to the ground by an official (providing yet another awkward internet clip to go along with his smokeless tobacco performance) during an interception return.

"Not good on my part," Beckman said.

Mostly it was the same mistakes that have plagued the team since September that negated a good start. The Illini scored on the game's first drive and trailed 14-17 midway through the second quarter.

That's when that snowball, filled with negativity and losses, got rolling.

Starting in the second quarter, Northwestern scored on six straight possessions (five touchdowns and a field goal), a streak that would have continued if not for the big fella's fumble. The final score looked a lot like many of the previous losses this year. In total, the combined score in the Illini's 10 losses this season was 378-132.

In his postgame press conference, Beckman was asked how much this season's struggles have affected him.

"A lot. A lot. You're in this game for the players," he said. "You're in this game so that you see the players experience things, the great things about this game. This game is an unbelievable game. You get so close to one another as a family. Kids coming over to your house on Thanksgiving and all those things. The losing, it hurts. You want your kids to experience wins, just like you want your sons to experience winning. We didn't experience wins this year. It's one of the hardest things we've ever done."

Saturday's loss went the way many went for the Illini season – there have been competitive moments, close halftime scores and games that got out of hand late.

"We've seen that most of the season, once we get behind we are not able to catch up, we're not able to keep up," co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said. "We don't have the ability to do that right now."

What Beatty's saying is, there aren't enough playmakers on this team. That means the staff has to go find players that can make a difference, convince recruits that Illinois is the place to be.

"Our coaching staff will be out on the road tomorrow," Beckman said. "We'll get it together and see what we have to do to get players in here to the University of Illinois and do what we've got to do to get it turned around."

Speaking of that staff – one has to wonder if the current group calling the shots will remain intact. Given the rumors and reports of dissention and a lack of cohesion, it's fair to at least say Beckman has some decisions to make in regards of who to keep or how to better employ those currently on board.

"Everyone of our coaches will be evaluated," Beckman said. "Everyone of our coordinators will evaluate our offensive coaches and vice versa. We'll evaluate our training staff, we'll evaluate our training room, we'll evaluate everything we have to see if there's things that we can get better."

While addressing recruiting and the staff, Beckman must also figure out a way to dissipate that pesky snowball.

Illinois has lost 14 consecutive Big Ten games – the ‘here we go again' feeling appears to be a very real thing.

"I think it's just the attitude, the belief, doing the little things that you need to do to be successful," Beckman said.

Added defensive coordinator Tim Banks: "At this particular season the sting is great, but at the end of the day I've been in some situations where you've had to turn some things around. We thought we'd be in a little bit better shape going into this year, you know so, the reality of it is, can it be fixed? I think so. In fact, I know so. It's going to take good work ethic amongst the players and obviously the coaches to get this thing where we need it to be. I think everybody is up for that challenge. There's a lot of guys hurting in that locker room, including the coaches. We've just got to pick ourselves up. We've got to figure it out and continue to move forward."

So, the course for improvement has been detailed – development of current players, recruiting difference-makers and changing the attitude and culture.

"It doesn't happen by just saying something, by just saying, you know, we can only get better, we have to have change," said quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. "That's doesn't change anything."

OK, so it's been said. Now Beckman has to lead his program, his assistants and players and actually do it.

"You're building a program," Beckman said. "You have to try to make that program the best you can make it, so there's always things that need to be enhanced. Nobody's perfect, so you've got to find ways to have your players and have your staff even better."


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