CHAMPAIGN – In trying to identify what’s been missing from an Illini football team that has four lopsided losses in six games, the search for answers has been mostly a guessing game.
Until Monday, that is.
That’s when defensive players Steve Hull, Michael Buchanan and Jonathan Brown talked about a players-only meeting that took place Friday night at the team hotel in Madison, Wis., the night before Illinois seemed to show improvement for three quarters, trailing heavily favored Wisconsin 10-7 going into the final period.
But that’s when the defense collapsed and Wisconsin breezed home with a 31-14 win.
While trying to balance the impact of a new coaching staff and recurring breakdowns that head coach Tim Beckman has referred to as “players trying to do too much,” it was Brown, the junior linebacker, who offered an opinion that seemed to make sense.
Speaking about the coaching change, Brown said, “The biggest thing about change is that it makes people uncomfortable. When people get uncomfortable they start doing things they wouldn’t normally do.”
The meeting, which
included the entire team but no coaches, seems to have been organized mostly by defensive leaders such as Buchanan and cornerback Terry Hawthorne.
Why the need for a players-only meeting?
Buchanan said the time had come to have a heart-to-heart discussion limited to those competing on the field.
“I think it holds more weight when you have seniors and guys getting up there,” Buchanan said. “It’s time to talk things out. It’s easier to listen to your peers. Coaches are always talking and saying things, but actually to have guys standing up there and getting some things off their chest and speaking their minds, I think that held more weight.”
Each of the three defensive players who attended Monday’s media session seems to have recognized a different theme from the meeting. But they all agreed it was a positive step that manifested itself in more inspired play for three quarters at Wisconsin.
As Illinois prepares to travel to Michigan for this Saturday’s game (2:30 p.m., ABC), Brown stated the obvious next step.
“It’s just part of the process with the change,” Brown said. “I believe we’re getting more comfortable with it. We’re finally starting to understand what’s expected, what we have to do to win. We just have to do it for 60 minutes.”
Hull said a number of players spoke up at the meeting.
“I know Buchanan and Terry spoke a lot,” Hull said. “Tommy Davis spoke. Akeem Spence spoke a lot. And people put little chirps in there. I stood up and said some things. Nate (Scheelhaase) did as well. Jonathan Brown did. There were a lot of people chiming in.”
Buchanan and Hull each implied that part of the message was to play loose and have fun, something that had been missing.
“I felt like we’ve been … prohibiting ourselves like we never did before,” Hull said. “The point of the meeting was to go out with our swagger and have fun. I think we’ve been playing tight. We haven’t been playing the way we did last year. And for the first three quarter we were.”
Buchanan said an important message was that “everyone matters.”
The players said No. 25-ranked Michigan will be a strong test to show if Illinois really has made improvement, and whether it can demonstrate it for four quarters.
Coach apologizes: Beckman apologized again Monday for having used smokeless tobacco on the sideline of Saturday’s Illinois game.
Beckman was caught on camera taking a pinch of tobacco, which is an NCAA violation. Tobacco is not permitted on the sidelines.
“I talked to our AD (Mike Thomas) concerning the situation,” Beckman said. “I apologize. It’s a terrible habit. It will be adjusted and it will not happen again.”