Illinois has lost five straight games, with Saturday's defeat a stinging disappointment for coach Tim Beckman and his team.
CHAMPAIGN – Tim Beckman gave a solemn shake of the head as he met athletic director Mike Thomas exiting the field following Saturday's 31-17 loss to Indiana.
His face looked stressed, and he didn't speak as Thomas embraced the first-year coach.
Shortly thereafter, a member of the media asked Beckman how he felt.
"Awesome," he said sarcastically. "How do I look? Honestly?
"I've lost 22 pounds. You think I like losing? I haven't been around it. No, I hate it. We just continue to go, plug forward. I've learned a lot, but no I don't like losing. I hate it."
The loss to the Hoosiers, a game in which Illinois played well during spurts, but made decisive, fundamental mistakes, marked the season's fifth straight loss (sixth overall) and 10th consecutive Big Ten loss dating back to last September.
Beckman, who cut his teeth as an assistant at winning programs like Ohio State and Oklahoma State, appeared teary-eyed after his post-game speech to the team, clearly frustrated by the hardships encountered this season.
"Wow, what do you say? It's homecoming, and I'm not use to being involved in losses during homecoming," he said.
This loss hurt more than the previous handful. Following a bye week, Illinois faced an Indiana team that hadn't won a conference game since 2010. It was a chance, at home in Memorial Stadium, to get the winning feeling back and show the program was moving forward, even if at a slow pace.
It was a chance to quiet the growing rumble of concern heard from outside the program from those fans and media pundits openly questioning if Beckman was the right hire.
Instead it was Indiana that ran with the chance for positivity. The Hoosiers, in their second year under coach Kevin Wilson, are 3-5, but this season has shown remarkable improvement over the one-win campaign from a year ago.
Fans of that team have to feel great about the trend – up, up and up, while the Illinois faithful is left collecting itself after another loss.
"I think everybody has that disappointing feeling that we've had, quite frankly, too many times," said Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. "We've got to do something to change that."
It won't get easier from here. A trip to Ohio State is next, and Saturday's loss means a bowl game isn't happening unless the Illini win out.
Players like senior ‘Star' Ashante Williams said they've reached out to Beckman during the losing streak.
"I tell him all the time, like, I apologize to him just knowing that this isn't how he wanted to start off his Big Ten career," Williams said. "This isn't how we wanted to finish off our senior season."
Linebacker Jonathan Brown didn't sugar coat his message following the game.
"I mean, the only thing we can do is go out there and play," he said. "At this point, words don't really mean nothing. We've got to prove it with our actions. I can say anything right now, but it really won't matter unless we go out there and back it up. We haven't been doing that."
So now what? Fans are watching. More importantly, so are recruits. Beckman and his staff have to find a way to prove to both those factions that Illinois is building something, taking steps forward even if losses are incurred.
"I think he's doing what we're all doing, is making sure within these walls that we're taking care of what we need to do," Scheelhaase said. "When you deal with tough times you've got to put your nose down and work, come to work everyday with that same mentality. That's what he's done. That's what he shown us as players. We have to respond and do the same thing."
There are now four games left, two of which are at home. The season finale is at Northwestern, a rivalry game that fans should still care about, even if ever-so slightly. Those three games provide Beckman a chance to show the message is resonating, to prove there's still fight left in this team and the program is building for the future.
Anything positive, for that matter, is sure to be welcomed by a fan base that's suffered for far too long.
"Coach has a plan in place and you just try to build on that plan," offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said. "I don't think anybody thought it was going to be done in a day. We've just got to keep building on it and make a foundation to get where we want to be. You look at all these teams (like Indiana), they started in a spot where you usually don't want to be and built to get them where you want. That's what we've got to be able to do."