CHAMPAIGN, Ill. | If Tim Beckman could narrow his worries to just one in Illinois' season finale Saturday at Northwestern, it might be big plays.
On offense, Northwestern has a way of making them. And the Illini defense, at least last week in a loss to Purdue, had a bad habit of giving them up.
Beckman said Monday his defense has been getting better, but the quick strikes that moved the Boilermakers down the field to their two touchdowns were the biggest reason Illinois (2-9, 0-7 Big Ten) lost 20-17.
"We gave up three of them," Beckman said. "Those happened to be the ones that hurt us."
The two that mattered most both went for 63 yards — a run by Ralph Bolden that set up Purdue's final touchdown and a third-quarter screen pass from Robert Marve to Akeem Hunt for a score.
The run by Bolden, less than two minutes after Illinois had closed the gap to 13-10, was a back-breaker for a defense that just a year ago was proud to call itself one of the best in the country, defensive end Michael Buchanan said.
"We pride ourselves on turning the ball back to the offense, and we (otherwise) did a good job of that," Buchanan said. "But that run, that really hurt."
In Northwestern (8-3, 4-3), Illinois will face a team that lives off the big play. Six Wildcat receivers have at least one catch of 20 or more yards. Four Wildcats have runs of 27 yards or more.
Making open-field tackles and successful pursuit of the ball, Beckman said, could be the difference for Illinois.
"Their offense is that chunk-type play," he said. "You've got to have great vision, you've got to be able to open-field tackle. It's very, very important that we get 11 guys running to the football."
The Wildcats can also turn a big play or two on defense. Linebacker David Nwabuisi gave the Wildcats a an eight-point lead early in the third quarter last Saturday in Northwestern's 23-20 win over Michigan State with a 43-yard interception return for a touchdown.
And Illinois tends to give its opposition plenty of chances for big defensive plays. The Illini are 11th in the 12-team conference with 26 turnovers.
The Illini also won't get a break in the personnel department.
Quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark — who has 1,183 yards this season — were both shaken up in the game. But Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Monday that both will play.
Illinois can't say the same for linebacker Jonathan Brown, arguably the most talented player on the Illini defense who sat out last week with a shoulder injury.
"Jonathan Brown will not be available for us," Beckman said, meaning Brown is done for the season.
Illinois has just this shot left to end both its 13-game losing streak in the Big Ten, dating to October 2011, and the eight-game string of losses this season.
Beckman said he isn't sure yet whether injured tight end Jon Davis will play against Northwestern but said Davis has practiced this week.
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