Breaking Through the Barrier

Illinois fights to stay positive as Big Ten losing streaks runs to 15.

LINCOLN, Neb. - For 21 yards, Donovonn Young carried the football and the optimism of Illini Nation with him.

Early in the first quarter, an NCAA record 330th consecutive sellout Nebraska crowd roared loud in Memorial Stadium after the home team got a quick stop and then scored first.

Nebraska made it look easy.

In a hold-up-just-a-minute response, the Illini moved quickly on offense. Young's run pushed to the Cornhuskers 30-yard line. But as he went to the ground, the junior running back fumbled the football and everybody else dropped the optimism.

Nebraska defenders celebrated to indicate they had it. Replay confirmed the call and kick started that familiar feeling.

You know, the collective here-we-go-again. Nearly two calendar years full of nothing but losses in conference play makes it easy to whoa up and dive negative at a moment's notice.

Next thing you know the score read 17-0. And then Nebraska led 30-5. And then it was finished with 39-19 as the damage, another big number sitting next to a smaller one. It marked the Illini's 15th straight Big Ten loss with a bye week to get ready for reigning champion Wisconsin in the next chance to end the misery.

"We don't have any recourse. We've got to go out there and get it done," offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said.

Cubit's offense didn't capitalize when it had opportunities Saturday. Three promising first-half drives produced only three points as Nebraska kept widening the gap. The equalizing big-strike plays witnessed in the first four games never happened. Josh Ferguson, the energizing surprise playmaker thus far, finished with 201 total yards but didn't find the end zone until the game was out of reach.

Everybody figured going in that 19 points wouldn't be enough to keep up with Nebraska.

The Illinois defense proved that correct. Bigger, faster, stronger was on display, as the Cornhuskers rushed for 335 yards and quarterback Tommy Armstrong, in for the injured star Taylor Martinez, passed for two scores.

The tackling woes from the Washington loss sprang back up. It's a trend that becomes more troubling when you realize the whiffs routinely happened seven and eight and 10-plus yards ahead of the line of scrimmage.

That means there were holes opened up. It means defensive linemen and linebackers couldn't shed blocks. And all that happened before those maddening missed tackles. There were too many to count, at least four on Ameer Abdullah's 43-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter.

Abdullah had a career-best 225 rushing yards and averaged over 11 per carry, bettering the 208 yards Washington tailback Bishop Sankey rushed for against the Illini in Chicago three weeks ago. Abdullah's third quarter score, the highlight of the game if not for teammate Kenny Bell's one-handed snag and score later on, effectively ended the game. But the end of Illinois' chance for a win began with the punt-score-fumble-score sequence to start the game.

Cubit said he could sense a deflated feeling from his guys on the sideline. Senior offensive tackle Corey Lewis said everybody kept encouraging each other.

It's a situation where people have negative feelings, so they say positive things. But acting like there's not a problem doesn't solve the problem.

Lack of talent and experience or whatever else is holding this team back, the belief that a Big Ten win can happen has to be there first.

That's Beckman's biggest challenge. He's got to figure out a way to take these moments of adversity, you know, the ones that the game of football seemingly always provides, and turn them into an opportunity for proof of strength instead of such a daunting challenge destined for failure.

Nobody wants to hear it, but that's going to take time. Time is something fans and donors in the Social Networking Age aren't willing to spend.

Hey, Illinois players say they approached this game as a way to see where they stood. The players all wore suits on the plane. The motto was, ‘It's business, not personal.'

That's fine, but Nebraska entered unsure of itself, too. A crushing loss to UCLA, a porous defense and a coach on shaky ground created uneasiness around the program.

Nebraska left confident it's not as far away from last season's Big Ten title game appearance as perhaps thought. Illinois found out it's got a long way to go before competing on the road against a team with talent and expectations like that of Nebraska.

Sure, the offense has to make the most of every chance and break a few big plays a game to hang around. And the defense, as young and as unheralded as it is, has to figure out a way around its shortcomings. Aggressive playcalling, taking more risks, mixing and matching personnel – I'm sure Beckman and defensive coordinator Tim Banks have spent an unhealthy amount of time trying to figure it out.

Above all that though, given all the tangible limitations that are painfully obvious, everybody involved has to be able to take a punch and keep moving with a positive, pissed-off-for-greatness mentality.

Cubit says that kind of transformation in culture takes time.

"I think you've just got to keep pressing them," Cubit said of the players. "This is something that's got to be overcome. This has been a few years. You know sometimes it's not going to be solved right away. You've got to have some success.

"You just keep fighting. You've got to think you're going to go out there and break the barrier and that's what changes it."


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