I know it seems strange to say it about a game between one team that's 3-7 and another that's 1-9, but Saturday's game against Purdue is incredibly important. Particularly for Tim Beckman.
We've only got two games left in the season, which means Tim Beckman only has two games left this year to pick up that first Big Ten win or risk starting his Illini tenure with an 0-16 mark in Big Ten play. And while I don't want to go on record of saying that the Purdue game is a "must-win" for Beckman, but it sure feels like a "better-not-lose" doesn't it?
I've always been of the opinion that Tim Beckman is going to get a third season in Champaign no matter what both because I don't think Mike Thomas or the school want to be paying three former coaches next season, and also because the goal for this season was merely improvement. And while three wins isn't really much of an improvement over two, it's hard not to argue that the Illini have been a better football team in 2013 than they were in 2012. On one side of the ball at least.
Still, even though I feel that way, I don't think we should assume anything. I can't help but think that if the Illini go on the road and lose to Purdue tomorrow that Beckman's status will be in serious jeopardy. There has always been a portion of the fan base that's wanted Beckman fired, and with every single Big Ten loss more people join the horde, as is to be expected.
But if the Illini lose to a Purdue team that has been awful this season things could get downright ugly, and potentially leave Mike Thomas with little choice, even if the Illini followed that loss up with a win over HATED RIVAL Northwestern.
Now, if there's anything working in Beckman's favor right now, it's not just the improvement we've seen on the field, but the attitude of the players he's coaching. Houston Bates recently confirmed to the Chicago Tribune what any of us who watched last year's team already knew about it.
"At this point last year, everybody either had checked out or just didn't really care anymore," Bates told the Tribune's Chris Hine. "There was a bad aura around the team and you could feel it. When that happens, for me personally, if no one is willing to give up or sacrifice for the team, why waste my time if you're not going to do it for me?
"Those (bad vibes) don't exist (this season). We're fighting still. Even though we don't have a chance to go to a bowl game, we still want to be in games, we want to win games."
And I think that's important. We all knew players gave up last season, particularly a group of seniors that just wanted it to be over with. But all indications are that the players on this team enjoy playing for Beckman and the coaching staff. Sure, there are some players who aren't happy -- and I wouldn't be surprised to see some transfers after the season -- but that happens on every team across the country.
Alabama could celebrate another national title this season, but while doing so you'd be able to find a player or two who aren't happy about it due to their roles.
The problem for Beckman, though, is that this cuts both ways.
Last year he had a team quit on him and finish the season 2-10 and 0-8 in the Big Ten. This year he has a team that hasn't quit, and wants to play for him, yet it's only 3-7 and 0-6 in the Big Ten. And if they lose to Purdue on Saturday, who knows what happens to team morale.
So there's a lot more on the line tomorrow than just ending a 20-game Big Ten losing streak.