COLUMBUS — When Ohio State last traveled to Illinois, more than 56,000 fans packed Memorial Stadium in anticipation of the nationally ranked hosts thumping the underdog Buckeyes.
If only they could have frozen the moment in time.
Since then, the Illini have been one big, dysfunctional mess.
The Buckeyes handed Illinois its first loss of the season that October day in 2011, Ron Zook was fired later that year, and now the man charged with rebuilding the program — former University of Toledo coach Tim Beckman — is already on tenuous footing.
While third-ranked Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) can match a school record with its 22nd straight win Saturday in Champaign, the Illini (3-6, 0-5) are riding a streak of decidedly less distinction. Beckman is 0-for-the-Big Ten in his second season while Illinois has lost 19 straight conference games — matching the second-longest stretch in league history. (Northwestern remains the standard with 38 straight Big Ten losses from 1978-82).
Beckman remains optimistic, even guaranteeing the Illini would win a Big Ten game this season after their 24-17 overtime loss at Penn State earlier this month.
Yet Saturday only looks to provide the latest dreary note, with the Illini a 32-point underdog in a stadium they are having increasing trouble filling. Only 45,895 fans turned out for their 42-3 homecoming loss to Michigan State last month.
"I'm excited still about being here," Beckman said Tuesday. "I know we're making progress. It doesn't show in the [wins] column. But we’ve had opportunities. We're happy with the progress we're making."
Whether Illinois’ decision makers agree is the question.
Beckman, 48, still has three seasons remaining on a five-year, $9 million deal while Illinois is already paying more than $7 million in buyouts to Zook, former men’s basketball coach Bruce Weber, and ex-women’s coach Jolette Law. He also has the support of a youthful team whose effort has never been questioned.
"Coach Beckman preaches family, so when criticism is against him, it’s against us," linebacker Jonathan Brown said. "It makes us work a little bit harder."
Yet red flags endure, including the Illini’s backslide on defense — Beckman’s bailiwick. Illinois is 116th nationally allowing 482.7 yards per game. The mounting losses and fan apathy could force a hard look at Beckman’s future.
“I’m not going to get into hypotheticals,” Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas told the Chicago Sun-Times last week. “You ask the question, ‘Is the program developing and getting better?’ I think it is. I’m looking forward to continuing progress in the program.”
Beckman, a former OSU assistant who was Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer’s defensive coordinator at Bowling Green State University in 2001 and ’02, hoped he could follow the same script from Toledo. In three years at UT, he took program coming off three straight losing seasons to back-to-back bowl trips.
Yet Beckman has learned quickly not all renovations are created equally.
"Credit has to be given to Toledo too," said Beckman, who is 5-16 in Champaign. "We had some decent players we could fill in right away and we got a recruiting class in there to help. This football team is much younger. We're playing a lot more freshmen, and this is Big Ten football. I think each program is different."
Meyer silencesreceiver Spencer
Meyer said Tuesday he was "very disappointed" by junior receiver Evan Spencer’s playful assertion the Buckeyes could "wipe the field" with top-ranked Alabama and No. 2 Florida State.
"I can't stand that," hesaid. "He certainly is not the spokesman for our team. Evan won't talk to the media for a long, long time. You don't do that. That's not good sportsmanship and that's not what we expect. I understand he's a young man and made a minor mistake, but we just don't do that. You talk about your teammates, talk about the team and move on."
Asked if he privately liked Spencer’s confidence, Meyer said, "What he believes, what goes on inside the locker room doesn't need to be in the papers and all that. I just don't like disrespecting other teams."
Spencer expressed confidence Monday that OSU could beat any team in the country, including the Crimson Tide and FSU.
"I guess I'm a little biased, but I think we'd wipe the field with both of them," he said, laughing. "That’s just my bias speaking."
Later on Twitter, Spencer wrote, "I did not mean to disrespect any [football] team. I am confident in my team, and as is evident in the video, I was having fun with the media answering their questions. I should have chosen my words more wisely."