Illinois looking to lay foundation in final two games

It was the same old story.

Illinois head football coach Tim Beckman addressed the media with those words Monday, two days after his team lost its sixth straight game — this one at the hands of No. 3-ranked Ohio State, 60-35.

Illinois opened the game in a 28-0 hole and climbed back to within 12 before submitting to the Buckeyes stranglehold.

“No, it’s not a win,” Beckman said. “But what this team did do is get back up. They’re fighting back, from trainers to managers to coaches to players.”

But when is fighting no longer going to be enough?

This weekend’s matchup with the pitiful Purdue Boilermakers might be Illinois’ best chance to fight and actually come out with something to show for it. The Illini have two games left, and 5-7 looks a heck of a lot better than 3-9.

Change is on the horizon no matter what happens these last two weeks. But a pair of losses could make the changes drastic.

Whether Illinois wins or loses, familiar faces such as Nathan Scheelhaase, Jonathan Brown, Ryan Lankford, Corey Lewis, Miles Osei and Steve Hull — along with the rest of the Illini seniors — will all be gone. And the coaching staff is bound to see change in the offseason. It almost always does.

Coaches leave for positions that might be better or closer to home. But a pair of losses to end the season could mean major changes. Last season Beckman fired his co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty after a dreadful offensive campaign. Losses to the two teams that are currently last in the Legends and Leaders divisions — and a combined 0-12 in conference — could mean similar change near the top.

It was fair to assess Illinois as the underdog in every Big Ten game its played this season. Beckman knew his team was overmatched against Ohio State.

“We knew we had to play a perfect football game this last week,” Beckman said. “There’s a reason that they’ve won so many in a row. But we have to do that all the time, regardless of who we’re playing.”

For once, Illinois is favored in a Big Ten game. At 1-9, Purdue is the conference doormat as Illinois was last year and as Indiana was the year before.

No matter the Illini’s opponent this season, they haven’t changed the way they prepared. Even with a bowl game out of reach and the Big Ten Championship game a distant mirage, they aren’t going to do things any differently these last two weeks.

“Nothing’s really changed,” Brown said.

Not yet.

A year from now, Brown could possibly be wearing an NFL uniform on Sundays. Everyone else’s future is more of a question mark. Lankford and Lewis could find themselves on rosters or practice squads. Scheelhaase is more of a long shot.

Either way, these guys have two more games together in orange and blue.

“Knowing it’s the last two, we’re just really going to enjoy it a little bit more,” Brown said. “Take everything in, soak it up and take it for what it is.”

Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has a simple message for his seniors.

“He tells us not to have any regrets after this season,” said Osei, a senior wide receiver and former quarterback behind Scheelhaase.

Two losses to end the season would mean the seniors go out with the monkey still on their back.

“I want to build a foundation,” Brown said. “I want to be part of the reason the losing streak snapped.”

He’s not talking about the current six-game losing skid. He’s talking about the 20-game conference losing streak that dates back to 2011. Roughly half the undergraduate population has never seen the Illini win a Big Ten game since enrolling.

For the players who aren’t seniors, it’s about sending off the seniors on a high note.

“The goal is to finish 2-0,” sophomore cornerback V’Angelo Bentley said. “Build a stepping stone for next season and going into the spring.”

The Illini will look drastically different in 2014, especially on offense, where the key pieces of Cubit’s resuscitated passing attack will be gone. The defense doesn’t lose a lot, but among the missing pieces will be its centerpiece: Brown.

So 2014 will not be the same old story. Beckman may say the same old thing, but it won’t be the same story. There’s no way for it to be. It will be a new story with new characters and new storylines.

There’s not a lot to play for anymore: two wins, the Purdue Cannon and the Land of Lincoln Trophy. There’s no silver lining.

“It’s surreal, I’ve had a lot of great moments playing in front of Illini nation and playing in front of my teammates,” Brown said. “It’s kind of sad, kind of bittersweet, but I’m going to enjoy it.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.