Illini looking to avoid longest conference losing streak in school history

Oct. 8, 2011, marked a “take care of business” sort of road game for the then-No. 19 Illini. Illinois football was 5-0 against an unranked and overmatched Indiana squad. The Illini cruised to a 41-20 victory and became bowl-eligible at a perfect 6-0, with two of those wins coming against Big Ten teams.

Since that day, Illinois hasn’t won a conference game. After that win, the undefeated Illini would finish 7-6, with the lone win coming in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against UCLA. After the implosion that season, head coach Ron Zook was fired and Tim Beckman was brought in to become the head man. In Beckman’s maiden voyage, the Illini were 0-8 in conference play and won just two games all season. After a 39-19 loss at Nebraska on Oct. 5 this season, the conference losing streak now stands at 15.

When the Illini take the field Saturday night against the Wisconsin Badgers, it will have been two years and 12 days since Illinois has won a conference game.

Fifteen straight contests, 15 straight defeats — tying the longest conference losing streak in the program’s history.

“It’s really not something we hear about much,” senior linebacker Jonathan Brown said. “We know what’s been done in the past, or what hasn’t been done in the past. We work each week to win the game, and that’s something we’re going to do this week especially and work even harder.”

The current streak matches the program’s all-time record for consecutive losses, set in 1996-98. The Illini lost their final six conference games in 1996 and all eight the following year before earning a victory in the second Big Ten game (first losing to Iowa) of the 1998 season against Northwestern.

Its ranks tied for the seventh longest streak for all Big Ten teams, with Northwestern owning the most futile stretch of 38 losses from 1978-82.

Although the most consecutive losses for the program is 15, the Illini went 19 straight games without a conference victory in the late ’70s. Illinois under head coach Gary Moeller went 0-16-3 over a three-season span (two years, 27 days) before finally breaking through against Northwestern in the final game of Moeller’s tenure in 1979 — as part of Northwestern’s 38-game drought.

The current losing streak exemplifies a pattern, rather than an anomaly. The Illini averaged only 2.09 conference wins per season from 2002-12. The high water marks for the program were a 2002 Sugar Bowl berth and 2008 appearance in the Rose Bowl Game, but Illinois hasn’t been able to sustain any long-term success.

What makes the lack of success more perplexing is that these Illinois teams have had individual players succeed at the next level. Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal ranked Illinois as the No. 1 “Quiet football factory.” The criteria examined the lowest wins per season in the past 10 seasons against current NFL starters. The Illini had the highest ratio of starters per win (11 starters per 4.1 victories) for teams that averaged fewer than seven wins per season.

This week, only 44 of 116 players on the Illinois squad were on the team for that Indiana victory. Fewer than half of the team has experienced what it’s like to earn a conference win. Even with the lack of experience, sophomore linebacker Mason Monheim said the ugly mark on Illinois’ resume isn’t brought up around the locker room much.

“We don’t really talk about it,” he said. “We’re focused on beating Wisconsin and not focused on what’s happened in the past.”

After the loss at Nebraska, Illinois’ bye week provided the team a chance to re-evaluate itself and learn from mistakes made thus far in the season.

“We really called it a ‘Bus Week,’” Beckman said. “It goes back to coach (John) Groce and a book that he had called ‘The Energy Bus.’ It talks about being positive and building on history, and it talks about taking your program and doing what you need to do to make it better.”

“That’s something he really tries to stress,” Brown added. “The positive nature of things and speaking positivity in everything you do. That’s something we’ve been listening to.”

Stepping away from the historical ramifications of this Saturday’s outcome, the Illini have work to do. After two byes in the schedule’s first seven weeks, the Illini now face seven games in as many weeks — all against Big Ten teams — needing three more wins to become bowl eligible this season.

The team’s 45-17 win over Cincinnati on Sept. 7 was thought to be a signature win in the Beckman Era, but a conference victory would continue the message of progress in the coach’s second season.

“There’s a huge sense of urgency that everything counts from this point,” quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “You’re playing a team that’s on our side of the division this year, and we’re playing in games that really matter for what we want to have in the postseason. There’s a huge sense of urgency in every practice, every lift, every film study.”

For the senior Brown, this week’s game represents not only a chance to get a win, but to send a statement to the rest of the league that the Illini won’t be intimidated by anyone.

“We’re going to fight every play,” he said. “Letting everybody know that we’re not a team that’s going to be pushed over, not a team that’s going to lay down, not a team that’s going to die.”

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.