CHAMPAIGN Reilly OToole was locked in on Saturday. Starting in place of injured quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, the sophomore completed his first 10 passes against Charleston Southern University en route to a school-record 83.8 percent completion rate.
OToole was so locked in he didnt even realize it, though.
Its pretty cool to have the record. I didnt notice that, he said. When you have guys running great routes and theyre open it makes the game a lot more fun because youre just pitching and catching.
After Illinois 44-0 drubbing of CSU, the Wheaton Warrenville South product was remarkably calm. Against the Buccaneers, OToole completed 26 of 31 passes for 333 yards, including five touchdowns. The anxiety and excitement of his big day had not shaken him, or changed his priorities after the game.
OToole said he would probably celebrate the win with his parents, in town to watch him play, rather than hitting the town.
Im not much of a dancer, he said with a laugh.
After uneventful first possessions for both teams the OToole show started. Freshman Mason Monheim picked off CSU quarterback Derek Hatcher to set the Illini up on the Bucs seven yard line. Three plays after the pick OToole capitalized on the visitors mistake, finding Ryan Lankford on an out route in the back corner of the endzone from four yards.
On the next Illinois possession coach Tim Beckman showed a good deal of faith in his young quarterback. Just a week after a nightmarish trip to the desert to play Arizona State, Beckman put the ball in OTooles hands on fourth down and four to go from the CSU 19.
OToole rewarded his coach by hitting Lankford on a 10-yard pass to set up the Illini inside the 10 yard line of CSU. Three plays later OToole and Lankford connected again, this time on a five-yard pass to the left side for a touchdown.
Lankford was OTooles favorite target early in the game and just before the end of the first quarter the two connected for a 23-yard reception. Then, on the first play of the second quarter, OToole went over 100 yards passing as he found the junior over the middle for a 45-yard completion.
In the second half the Buccaneers paid a little more attention to Lankford, mostly taking him out of the game. OToole did not let it disrupt his passing game, though.
OToole looked for new targets, and on Illinois first play of the second half he hit Justin Hardee over the middle on a 48-yard completion. Two plays after the deep pass, OToole found Spencer Harris cutting through the middle of the field for a 24-yard touchdown.
OToole went on to find two more receivers for touchdowns. Late in the third quarter he and Jon Davis connected for a 20-yard score, then shortly into the fourth Donovonn Young got on the receiving end of a 23-yard touchdown pass. Having so many weapons to turn to was just one of the blessings OToole had on Saturday, though.
Reilly had great protection, Reilly had receivers that were getting open and Reilly will probably be the first one to tell you that too, Beckman said. Im proud of the way he came in. He performed. I think our offensive staff did a great job of enabling to hit some people that were open.
It was a team effort, he added.
There was just one mistake for OToole against CSU. After his 48-yard connection with Hardee he put a little too much air on a pass to the endzone and was picked by Bucs cornerback Charles James.
Even with the interception OToole had a great day, though. A school record for completion percentage and a career high in receiving yards could not guarantee OTooles status as starting quarterback, though. After the game Beckman gave no indication of who would feature behind center for the Illini against Louisiana Tech next week, commenting that the job must be won in practice.
Its about competition. Nathans won football games also, but Reilly keeps getting himself better, he said. Thats why we compete on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Despite his uncertain status OToole remained respectful. He emphasized his commitment to the team, but indicated he would be ready to take advantage of every opportunity given to him.
Scheelhaase and I are preparing every week like were going to play, so nothing changes for next week. Were all just getting in the film room, helping each other and trying to get better for next week, he said.
Week Three Notebook
- The Illini's wideouts are high on confidence after their big day against CSU. With 365 of Illinois 479 yards coming through the air, the performance might be hard to repeat, however. Just three of the ten players to make a reception on Saturday were upperclassmen, but because of their hard practices OToole thinks the young players could continue to perform well for Illinois moving forward.
It really helps us out a lot that we go against a great defense day-in and day-out, he said. We saw Fritz Rock make a few great plays, and Kenny Knights in there. Then Justin Hardee a true freshman came in and made a few huge plays today.
- The only Illinois rushing touchdown of the day came on a fourth and one rush by Dami Ayoola, midway through the second quarter. The freshman running back plowed into the Bucs defense to get the yard he needed and never stopped moving his legs. He broke free of the pack and saw nothing but space between him and the endzone. Ayoola finished the 28-yard run easily to score Illinois third touchdown of the game. The hard run from Ayoola impressed Beckman.
He runs with great passion when he runs the football, and hes not a quitter, he said. Im proud of the way he performed and did what he needed to do to get in the endzone.
Ayoola finished the game with 55 yards on the ground. Illinois had a total of 114 yards rushing against CSU.
- The Illinois defense struggled to communicate last week, with some defenders following dummy calls from the sidelines and running the wrong play. The communication issues were a point of emphasis for Illinois in practice this week and the preparation paid off, as the team had no problems with play calls on Saturday.
No question communication was better today, Beckman said That was a problem last week and that was fixed. We made sure that wouldnt happen again.
- The Illini went for it three times on fourth down against CSU, converting twice both times with OToole under center. Beckman said the aggressiveness on fourth down was something he brought with him from Toledo and something he expects to continue doing.
Were trying to make the Fighting Illini better, if that means going for it on fourth down then that means going for it on fourth down, he said.
- Though CSU is an FCS team, the Illini did not take anything away from their opponent after the win. Beckman credited his 19 seniors with the win on Saturday, praising them for challenging the rest of the team to play better.
Senior defensive end Michael Buchanan said this win was important because it would help the team as they move onto bigger opponents.
It doesnt matter who you play, its all about every man on the defense doing their job, hustling and being accountable. So it doesnt matter who we play, we have to execute and handle our business the right way, he said.
- Next weeks opponent does appear to be a step-up for the Illini in terms of competition, though. Beckman pointed out how fast Louisiana Tech plays, noting they had 101 offensive snaps in Week 2 against Houston.
The Illini appeared ready to move on and prove they are better than the group who lost at Arizona State, however.
This game definitely gets the ball rolling, Lankford said. We knew that we could come in and play well today and right back on track. We lost last week but were not far from our goal.
We prepare like were playing the New York Giants every week, and nothing is going to change with our film watching or practicing. Well be ready to play. OToole added.