Style Points Not Required

It wouldn't win a beauty contest, but Saturday's victory against Purdue had Illinois basking in the pageantry.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – It had been an unpleasant two-plus seasons, a nasty, filthy 20-conference games worth of sometimes losing big, always not winning and occasionally falling just short.

It's fitting that Illinois' Big Ten losing streak – entering as the longest such skid in the country – played out the way it did against Purdue on Saturday. In less-than-25 degree weather, with snow blowing and a bone-numbing wind constantly ripping, the Illini held on for a 20-16 win.

Receiver Steve Hull, the game's hero with two touchdowns, intentionally took a safety on the final play to secure the victory.

Safe to say, it certainly wasn't a thing of beauty.

That fact didn't change the feelings and emotions once the clock finally – FINALLY – ran out.

Coach Tim Beckman immediately walked toward offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, with a much different attitude than last week's sideline encounter when tempers ran hot. Hugs replacing near fisticuffs, Cubit later gave Beckman the game ball in the locker room.

Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase walked slowly off the field with classmate and close friend Miles Osei. Neither of them said a word.

Both were smiling too big to talk.

Hull slapped hands with a huddled bundle of Orange & Blue lingering in one corner of the stands, the most faithful fans who made the 90-something mile trip from Champaign and didn't budge despite the sloppy weather and slimy football.

Music blared in the locker room. The players chanted, laughed and cried. Athletic director Mike Thomas exited the celebration and gave hugs to Kim Beckman and Nancy Cubit, the wives and kids of the coaching staff waiting for their turn to enter and soak it all in.

"I think just about everybody hugged," Tim Beckman said.

Illinois won a Big Ten football game. It took 777 days. All the loses post-October 8, 2011 against Indiana weren't required to make wins feel good again. But given the circumstances, it's clear some wins mean more than others.

"Its one of those feelings, if you could bottle it up and sell it you'd be a millionaire," Scheelhaase said.

The Illini had come close before. There were strides of progress on display. Overtime at Penn State. A lead in the third quarter against Indiana. Erasing a 28-point deficit to 12 versus Ohio State.

Hull and Scheelhaase were setting personal and school records. But no player wants to tweet about himself when the team doesn't win.

"Before it was like we were still missing something," Hull said. "All that chemistry and plays feel good but it wouldn't mean anything without a win."

Everything worked out on Saturday though. When the defense gave up two first quarter touchdowns, the offense responded with scores of their own.

Hull had 169 yards receiving, his third straight game with at least eight catches and 100 yards. Tailback Josh Ferguson offered a career-high 115 yards rushing. And Scheelhaase completed 24 of 30 passes for 257 yards.

When Scheelhaase threw two picks and two fumbles were lost, the defense stood tall, shutting out Purdue for the final 48-plus minutes of the game.

Illinois got off the field without allowing a point on Purdue's final 10 drives, led by senior Jonathan Brown's quarterback takedown and eight tackles.

"Those guys didn't want to be denied," defensive coordinator Tim Banks said.

Scheelhaase said the sideline was a constant, collective war cry. Stay together. Help each other out.

"It was just that keep swinging mentality and really step up when we needed to have somebody's back," he said.

There were times where it looked like the streak might hit 21. V'Angelo Bentley and Osei had a miscommunication trying to field a punt. The ball bounced away from Bentley and into the hands of the enemy.

Osei was near tears on the bench.

"He kept on saying all I want to do is win," Beckman said.

Later, with a chance to put the game out of reach, Scheelhaase dropped a pass from Hull in the end zone. Running a reverse pass, it appeared Hull could have taken it in himself instead of attempting the pass.

If that would have come back to bite the Illini, Hull said, "I wouldn't have been able to forgive myself."

It was these kind of plays that did the Illini in during the losing streak. Saturday they were obstacles that were overcome.

"I think it's one of those things, you're out there and you just want it so bad," Cubit said. "Sometimes when that happens you get a little tight, try to make a play here, try to make play there."

This time Illinois made enough plays, more than the team on the other sideline. Two field goals provided the cushion. Bentley redeemed himself with an interception on Purdue's final drive. Beckman finally could drop the moral victory angles in his post-game comments – he won his first Big Ten football game.

"It was about these seniors and this program and what they're willing to do and be positive to push this football team to achieve things," he said.

Scheelhaase won't go away known as a Big Ten loser in his final two seasons. Instead, he goes into next week's matchup with Northwestern holding a chance to break Juice Williams' school record for total yards in a career.

Scheelhaase said he didn't feel relieved. He, along with everybody else dancing to that music long after Hull scrambled to the back of Illinois' own end zone to crush the streak, was too happy for any other emotion to creep in.

"It's just something that you fight so hard during the week to go out there and win the ball game," he said. "To go out there and get the win, I can't describe it."


Illini Inquirer Top Stories