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Illini make Beckman's case — and earn bowl bid — with big win at Northwestern

If the recent on-the-field stuff matters, it sure looks as if Tim Beckman has kept his job.

On a lovely late November Saturday, Illinois socked it to Northwestern 47-33. It was the third victory in five games for the Illini (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten), who are bowl-bound for the first time in Beckman’s three years Downstate.

Detroit or Dallas is the most likely bowl destination.

Most importantly, this exclamation point clouds the question mark about whether Beckman will return.

“I haven’t even thought about it,’’ Beckman said. “I was worried about Northwestern, about winning the sixth game and going to a bowl game.

“That’s not in my hands, to make that decision. I’m blessed to be the head coach here, and I definitely want to continue doing it.’’

If athletic director Mike Thomas was considering a change in light of a restless Illini Nation — no more than 10,000 trundled into Memorial Stadium for Illinois’ 16-14 upset of Penn State last week — that decision is more difficult today.

With Northwestern (5-7, 3-5) also playing for its bowl life, Illinois came up with five turnovers, the most since a wild 67-65 loss at Michigan in 2010.

The Illini jumped out to a 19-0 lead and answered every challenge to best the Cats in this bowl-eligibility showdown.

“It means the world,’’ said senior quarterback Reilly O’Toole, the backup who had another rock-solid start, throwing three touchdowns and running for a career-high 147 yards on 21 carries. “Who would have thought we’d even be in position to go to a bowl? With three games left, we had to win two of them. We rose to the occasion.’’

After notching two Big Ten victories in nearly three years — a 2-20 start in Big Ten play, if you’re keeping score at home — Beckman has won twice in eight days.

“Considering where the program was two years ago, there’s been a huge jump,’’ said star freshman receiver Mike Dudek, who caught seven passes for 63 yards “I feel like today was a program-changing win.’’

Is Illinois a coach-changing program? The Illini will find out from Thomas whether the progress on the field offsets the apparent unrest in the fan base.

“I’m not worried about those types of things,’’ Beckman said. “Of course, I’d be happy being the Illinois head coach because that’s what I wanted to be. This program has gotten better in every way. But the program’s not about the coaches. It’s about the guys that wear the orange and blue.’’

Beckman’s public-relations gaffes have made many in Illini Nation uncomfortable with him as their gridiron leader. But these late victories over Minnesota, Penn State and Northwestern are positive and notable.

Enough for Beckman to remain?

“I hope so,’’ O’Toole said. “He deserves it. He works real hard, and we love him. He cares about us. That’s the favorite thing about him. He cares about his players. He’d do anything for them.’’

IN BRIEF

Cubit says staff’s focus is to ‘just keep working’

Beating Minnesota, Penn State and Northwestern in their final five games to salvage a bowl trip is pretty good stuff. But coach Tim Beckman’s shaky job status didn’t weigh heavily on the staff’s minds, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said.

‘‘I know you guys think we’re nuts — and we are — but you just keep working,’’ Cubit said. “You punch the clock, and you go until they tell you. What I’m seeing is, these kids are buying in.’’

Hushing critics

The Illini believe they have answered outside speculation about Beckman.

“[The victory against Northwestern] solidifies any doubts about coaches leaving,’’ running back Donovonn Young said. “We should have put up 60 on these guys.’’

The negativity was a motivator.

“It’s always nice to prove doubters wrong,’’ quarterback Reilly O’Toole said. “We do a good job of not listening to that stuff. But it is sweet.’’

Quick counts

Illinois’ 47-33 victory was its best scoring day since it beat Northwestern 48-27 at Wrigley Field on Nov. 20, 2010. The Illini rushed for a season-high 291 yards, their best day since they rushed for 308 yards at Indiana on Oct. 8, 2011.

◆ With a bowl game to go, freshman wideout Mike Dudek (seven catches for 63 yards) has 69 receptions, tied for fifth with David Williams (1983) for catches in a single season at Illinois.

◆ Illinois finished with 19 points off five turnovers.

◆ Linebacker Mason Monheim was involved in two turnovers. He recovered a second-quarter fumble and returned an interception 49 yards for a late touchdown.