Illini’s 2nd bye week may be coming at bad time

After Nebraska ensured Illinois’ conference losing streak would extend to 15 games, a week to regroup seems like a good idea. The last time Illinois lost, versus Washington, it used a bye week to regain composure and pummel a miserable Miami (Ohio) team that has since fired its head coach after losing again and reaching 0-5.

But this time is a different situation. And maybe a bye week isn’t so great.

The Illini fell to the Cornhuskers 39-19. It wasn’t quite that close, either. Regardless, it was the second highest offensive output in a Big Ten game from the Orange and Blue since the streak began in 2011. Illinois scored 22 points in a 30-point loss to Ohio State last season.

It wasn’t by any means an encouraging outing — after all, it fell way short of the 36 points per game average and was a season low for points — but it wasn’t miserable, either.

The defense was as bad as ever, unable to be masked by an explosive offense. Tims Beckman and Banks have promised improvement in the areas that need it most, but the pace at which the Illini are learning hasn’t been fast enough. Offenses are learning and improving, too. And coaches. And fans! We’ll all be better at football by the end of November.

The bye week will be a chance to get better and work on fundamentals such as tackling and not giving opposing receivers a 6-yard radius in which to operate. But practicing against people that need to believe you’ve gotten better won’t help as much as playing in real games against teams that want to embarrass you.

The more your problems are exposed and embarrassed, the more you work to overcome those difficulties — as long as you’re competitive. In 2012, there was no reason for anyone to get better because Illinois wasn’t winning more than two games no matter who gave extra effort. This year’s offense, however, gives the defense a reason to go further in its preparation. Defenses and offenses get by on not letting each other down, and picking each other up when failures occur.

A bye week doesn’t lend itself to failure and, therefore, to getting picked up.

The Illini are on a two-year plan. Of the top 10 offensive playmakers list I made last week, five are returning, including running backs Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson. Wes Lunt and Aaron Bailey will run the offense in Nathan Scheelhaase’s stead, and life will go on. The Illini defense will graduate just two regular contributors.

You play to win the game each week, but this year Illinois should be playing to get better. And of course the Illini are going to have two bye weeks, but to have one now stunts the learning process at a time when it’s critical for the Illini to play, and to not spend too much time thinking.

The loss to Washington was an encouraging loss in that it wasn’t an Arizona State-caliber blowout. The Illini hung tough. Illinois’ performance against Washington was its best indication that it could succeed against Nebraska. Missed opportunities prevented Illinois from winning at Soldier Field.

The Huskers, however, exposed some problems that can’t be resolved by opportunism. They exposed some problems that may not get resolved this season. They may have exposed the futility of the season, which we knew existed to some extent, but never so definitely.

That’s not something you want to spend two weeks mulling over.

If Illinois knows what’s good for it this week, it should try not to think too much. Don’t think about how the game had “it’s over” moments in all four quarters. Most of all, don’t think about Ameer Abdullah.

Don’t think about trying to stop years of Big Ten losses against Wisconsin or against Michigan State. Or the two-game road trip that follows. Or finishing the season against Ohio State and Northwestern. Don’t even think about the cupcake game against Purdue in between.

Last time Illinois had a bye week, it had imminent success to think about. It had beating Miami to look forward to, besting last year’s win total in September, improving on its weaknesses, heading into conference play with a 3-1 record. This week, there’s not so much sunshine.

We won’t know how Illinois handled its first demoralizing defeat of the season until the lights of Memorial Stadium shut off after the Oct. 19 contest against Wisconsin. If the Illini think too much and handle it poorly, you could see the season start to head in reverse.

Eliot is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @EliotTweet.