Illinois football struggling to find success in Big Ten

Illinois’ Taylor Barton (3) tackles Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott (15) during the game at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday. The Illini lost 55-14, which was the team’s fourth road-game loss.

By Sean Neumann

Conference play makes up two-thirds of Illinois’ schedule each year. 

For the last few seasons, the Illini have struggled during that portion of the schedule.

Illinois’ 55-14 loss to Ohio State was a familiar outcome for the Illini, who have lost 25 of their last 27 Big Ten games.

Defensive coordinator Tim Banks said it was hard to find any positives from Saturday’s loss after he felt the Illini defense was prepared for Ohio State.

“They didn’t really surprise us with anything they were doing,” Banks said. “We just, for whatever reason, weren’t able to execute and weren’t able to make the plays that we needed to make to play against a team of this caliber.”

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Dating back to 2011, Illinois has just two conference wins — a 20-16 victory over Purdue in 2013 and a 28-24 win over Minnesota this year on Oct. 25.

Opponents have scored more than double the Illini’s points during that stretch (941-466), while no Big Ten team has been worse than the Illini in conference play since 2011.

In the two Illinois conference victories since then, the team has had to come from behind and win the game in the final quarter.

The team has lost all four road games this season (Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State), in places where the average stadium capacity is 85,601. Memorial Stadium in Champaign holds just 60,670 and the Illini have struggled to fill two-thirds of the seats.

Illinois coach Tim Beckman compared Ohio State’s crowd to Nebraska and Wisconsin, saying, “It’s definitely an environment for college football.”

But the Illini have struggled in those college football environments this season, getting outscored 182-75.

“We haven’t played very good in environments like this,” Beckman said. “We have to learn to react to any environment.”

Turning over the game

Illinois’ turnover margin is the second-worst in the Big Ten, and the team’s offensive mistakes were costly Saturday; they committed four turnovers against the Buckeyes.

“We can’t put the defense in that spot out there,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “We’ve got some work to do.”

The turnovers allowed Ohio State premium field position, starting seven drives in Illinois territory.

“There’s a lot of things that went wrong,” Cubit said. “There were a lot of things going on in that game and unfortunately not a whole lot was really in our favor.”

Allowing big plays

It’s been no secret Illinois’ struggles have stemmed from the defense this season.

Four Ohio State touchdowns came on plays that were for 20-plus yards, as well as another 19-yard pass for a score.

Illinois’ defense has allowed a conference-worst average of 483.1 yards per game.

Every week, Banks said the defense focuses on the fundamentals of tackling — one of the main issues for the Illini this year.

And without consistent tackling, the Illini have allowed simple plays to turn into big ones, putting the Illini in early holes they cannot dig themselves out of.

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @neumannthehuman.