Illini can fight back or quit season against Nittany Lions

Sports can be ruthless at times; Ryan Lankford knows the truth.

The senior wideout’s college career ended on one of the worst plays in his time at Illinois. He couldn’t use his shoulder to help himself off the field, yet he still stuck around to receive an earful from offensive coordinator Bill Cubit — he shouldn’t have tried to lateral — before receiving the worst diagnosis in his football history.

Nathan Scheelhaase knows the truth, too. His senior season has devolved into something uncomfortably resemblant of his junior season. The offense can’t move the ball. The defense can’t stop the ball. Injuries affecting the team. And now his dad will never watch him play in Memorial Stadium again.

Sometime in September, playing football for Illinois looked like a pretty fun thing to do. The notion in itself was refreshing to the fans, the media and undoubtedly to the players themselves.

That’s changed, and the Illini have a bumpy road ahead. Coming in at 11th on our weekly power rankings means Illinois will win one game the rest of the season unless something changes.

The road portion of the season comes now. Traveling to Penn State, to Indiana, to Purdue. It’s not as easy as waking up in your own bed on gameday.

The weather’s colder. The only way to keep yourself warm is to play hard, which for the offense is tough to do since the defense spends most of the time on the field anyway. Then you go out there and its three frigid hits from bigger, faster defenders, and you’re back on the aluminum bench.

School is amping up. You have to stay academically eligible. You need more time to focus on school, which won’t really mesh well with needing more time to improve as a football team and extra work to transition to a post-Lankford offense.

This is the type of low point college football makes you fear — to be a loser in a heartless game with less and less to play for and more and more to do besides. This is the point when you dig deeper than you realized you could or you quit.

Illinois will take the field in Happy Valley and be given nothing, save for maybe a pair of hand warmers. Once the kickoff sails, into what will undoubtedly be a gray, drab morning air, it’s hard hits from white helmets and the wall of cheers of approval at your every failure.

Tim Beckman’s football family is in for a cold November.

But the season isn’t over. It doesn’t end just because things look bleak. There will still be a game to be won. Illinois will still have a shot to win it.

Against Michigan State, a couple fateful moments could have happened the other way and Illinois would have been winning at halftime. What happens in the second half if Illinois isn’t demoralized and down by three scores after the Spartans’ opening drive? Maybe things go differently.

And maybe they will this week. Illinois’ gotta be making the trip for a reason, right?

A win against Penn State would turn everything around. It would provide three things Illinois fans have totally forgotten about since the Orange and Blue smothered Miami (Ohio) 50-14 for their third win: an end to the Big Ten losing streak, a better chance at bowl eligibility and a reason to keep fighting despite the cold weather and busying schedules.

Illinois has to remember that it’s lost to three really talented opponents. Penn State isn’t on their level. A win brings the team back to .500, with an easier game against Indiana looming.

A win, moreover, would put an end to what has been a really tough week for the Illinois football program. Penn State football knows a thing or two about fighting through adversity to notch a reinvigorating victory.

Illinois is the underdog. The decision is up to the team whether it lays down and dies or bears down and fights.

It’s not too late to turn the season around. But it’s getting close.

Illinois is getting near the point of “why bother?” that defined the second half of its season last year. The Illini need to give themselves a reason to fight through the rest of the season, and a win over Penn State would do just that.

Eliot is a senior in Media. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @EliotTweet.