Past and future brighter than Illinois' present

Illini showed considerable progress in hanging close with No. 19 Washington

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Looking scary enough to still punish running backs and like it, Dick Butkus stood alongside the Illinois captains at Soldier Field and flipped the coin before Saturday night's game against Washington.

The sight confirmed there would be no toss-up over what image everybody will recall first from what the Illini billed as its "Chicago Homecoming." No other picture summed up Illinois playing in the home of the Bears more than a youthful 70-year-old Butkus in blue-and-orange garb, topped with an "I" ball cap, shaking hands and embracing the role of famous alum.

Point. Click. Instagram.

The Illini did their best to supply more moments suitable for framing in an entertaining 34-24 loss to Washington — even if nobody in the crowd of 47,312 came expecting to capture anything for posterity except, perhaps, snapshots of past greats Butkus and Simeon Rice.

It was a memorable game for Illini from every era. Representing the present, Nathan Scheelhaase provided the biggest highlight on a beautiful 72-yard touchdown pass into the hands of Ryan Lankford to make it 31-17 with 3 minutes, 16 seconds left in the third quarter. Representing the future, freshman Aaron Bailey made a lasting impression with a 10-yard touchdown run with 9:10 left in the fourth quarter that made it a one-possession game.

But in the end, an improved but inconsistent Illinois team proved it won't start beating ranked opponents again until it learns to stop beating itself.

The Illini recovered two fumbles near midfield in the first half but failed to convert either into points. Wide receiver Steve Hull dropped what would have been a 43-yard touchdown pass on the fifth offensive play. Penalties for holding and illegal procedure stalled drives. They relied too much on Scheelhaase's arm — he was 9 of 25 for 156 yards — and not enough on his legs. The desperate double-pass Illinois tried with 3:51 left that Washington intercepted bordered on ridiculous. The defense gave up too many big plays and missed enough tackles to make Butkus cringe.

"It all boils down to us not tackling well,'' coach Tim Beckman said.

Still, the Illini competed against Washington in a way Beckman can build on before the Big Ten season begins Oct. 5. They showed mettle in scoring two touchdowns after falling behind 31-10 late in the third. They hung with the Huskies well enough for Beckman and his staff to identify improvement. They looked closer to respectability than I anticipated. Unfortunately, the number of mental errors by young players illustrated how far Illinois still has to go.

In other words around Champaign, when does basketball season start?

"Right now this football team is very disappointed with the loss but understands they made strides,'' Beckman said.

The Illini raised expectations by winning their first two games and piquing enough curiosity to receive nine votes in last week's Associated Press Top 25 poll. But skepticism remained appropriate given that Illinois hadn't beaten a ranked foe since No. 22 Arizona on Sept. 17, 2011 — futility that continues thanks to a Washington team that looked overrated at No. 19.

After Bailey scored on a nifty run on fourth-and-1 from the 10, hope momentarily hung over the lakefront. In college football, where there is a Pac-12 defense outside of Oregon, there is a way. But on the ensuing possession, Illinois suffered another defensive lapse that momentarily turned my attention to studying field conditions — relevant given the Bears and Vikings will kick off here Sunday only 19 hours after Illinois and Washington did.

To digress briefly, why the Bears and the NFL scheduled a home game on a surface players in the home locker room consider among the worst in the league defies logic. But, inexplicably, they did. The Bears say they trust their groundskeepers and not to worry — even if the field looked patchy and worn postgame Saturday night. Is divot-y a word?

Speaking of shaky footing, Beckman likely returns to campus feeling more pressure despite the encouraging start through no fault of his own. He suffers in comparison to basketball coach John Groce, who overshadowed the football hype by getting a oral commitment from four-star point guard Quentin Snyder and securing an official October visit from consensus top-five talent Cliff Alexander of Curie.

The more Groce enhances his program, the more heat will surround Beckman if the Illini struggle against a Big Ten schedule, judging by Saturday's results, full of beatable opponents. Illinois already explored potential replacements for Beckham at the end of last season, two sources told the Tribune, so nobody would be shocked to see the school quietly search again.

To prevent that from happening, Beckman only can keep making the kind of progress evident in a game worth remembering.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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