Illinois Program on the Hot Seat

Dropping 17 of its last 18 conference games, Illinois comes into Camp Randall Stadium Saturday hoping to register a win that can show its fans a sign of progress under head coach Tim Beckman.

MADISON - A prime-time, nationally-televised game doesn’t come to Champaign that often, which was why the Illinois coaching staff loaded up on official visitors for a big recruiting weekend with a nationally-ranked Wisconsin program coming to town.

As senior defensive tackle Austin Teitsma described it looking back, the end result was brutal.

“It definitely was because of the circumstances,” said Teitsma of the 56-32 defeat last October to the Badgers. “I think it was hard for us as a defense when the offense has been doing do good. They were doing their part and we feel like we just aren’t making our standards. It snowballed quickly.”

The recovery for the Illini was supposed to happen this season in head coach Tim Beckman’s third year, but Illinois comes into this weekend’s Big Ten conference game at Wisconsin (11 a.m., Big Ten Network) limping on offense and struggling on defense.

Illinois never recovered after that Wisconsin game, one of six straight losses and one of eight games in which the Illini gave up over 30 points last season. Supposedly being improved after playing many young players last season, the Illini (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten) have given up at least 30 points in the last four games.

Illinois is 1-17 in the Big Ten under Beckman and the most gut-wrenching of them might have come last weekend in its 38-27 home loss to Purdue. The Boilermakers entered the game with one of the least-effective offenses in the conference (averaging 23.8 points and a conference-worst 312 yards a game), but ran for 349 yards and four touchdowns.

“Last week was definitely a tough, tough loss for us,” said Beckman, as Illinois is giving up 482.3 yards per game, dead last in the league. “It comes down on the shoulders of the coaching staff and on the shoulders of this football team. We’ve got to be better tacklers. We’ve got to not turn the ball over in the red zone. We’ve got to be able make and secure field goals and extra points. That was very concerning when it didn’t happen this last week for us.”

The loss became more costly on Sunday when starting quarterback Wes Lunt was diagnosed with a broken leg and will miss at least the next four weeks. Lunt is in his first year of starting for Illinois after transferring from Oklahoma State following the 2012 season. Leading the Big Ten with 313.8 passing yards per game, Lunt has completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and three interceptions, ranking fourth in the FBS with 14 completions longer than 30 yards.

Senior Reilly O'Toole is expected to start this weekend and Beckman said Aaron Bailey is also an option despite redshirting this season.

“We’ve seen what Aaron can do last year,” said Beckman. “He has a little bit more than what our quarterbacks can do. He has a strong arm. He is a winner… I think he brings a lot to the table and continue to make this program better.”

One of only 18 seniors, easily the smallest class on the team, Teitsma has described the defense as having untapped potential, something that he started to see during the offseason during senior-lead practices that focused on game situations to prep a young roster.

Saying last season was about guys not coming together, Teitsma said this season’s goal was to have guys playing with a chip on their shoulder due to last year’s shortcomings.

“We worked so hard and didn’t have the greatest season last year,” he said. “We just want to make sure it doesn’t happen this year.”

He’s also fully in support of his coach despite Beckman’s public opinion starting to wane as the conference losses continue to mount.

“I definitely like what I am seeing,” said Teitsma. “I like the people coach is bringing on. I like the feel around the team. We haven’t been this close as a family and friends in a long time it feels like.”

Beckman sidestepped the question Tuesday if he feels he’s coaching for his job the rest of the season, simply saying his program is looking forward to the next challenge on the schedule, which is playing in a venue the Illini haven’t won in since 2002.

“The last two weeks we haven’t played up to our capabilities,” he said, “but we still have six opportunities in front of us.”

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