CHAMPAIGN – If Illinois needed a confidence boost before starting Big Ten play, it picked the right opponent for the final non-conference game of the year. The Illini ran all over Miami (OH) on Saturday, literally and figuratively, and bested their 2012 win total with a 50-14 victory.
The hosts were anything but hospitable to Miami (0-4). The winless RedHawks were shown no mercy, as Illinois (3-1) ran trick plays, nabbed an onsides kick and marched the ball downfield relentlessly. Winning emphatically and getting the little things done was what the Illini needed, according to head coach Tim Beckman.
“The team started fast and that’s exactly what we talked about doing,” he said. “There were great touchdowns, runs and tackles, but it was the lead-up plays to me…those are the plays this team is making. That’s what’s making us successful.”
Though Illinois only had a 7-0 lead after one quarter, for all intents and purposes the game was over midway through the second quarter. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase went to the next level against the RedHawks, tying a school record and setting a new personal best with five passing touchdowns in the process.
Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said he tasked the senior with being an “NFL quarterback” and came away very impressed with the 278 yards Scheelhaase amassed.
“I told him, I want you to sit back there, I want the great feed, I wan the accurate throws, I don’t want you running…and I felt he did really well,” Cubit said.
In a more pro-style offense, Scheelhaase led Illinois to 36 first half points, the most for the school since it scored 38 points against California in 2001. Those points were a direct result of the Illini firing on all cylinders.
On offense, Josh Ferguson ran rampant. He pounded out 71 rushing yards and added 77 receiving yards for 148 total yards. He was not the only impressive offensive weapon though, as the tight end corps accounted for four of five touchdown passes, including two for Junior Matt LaCosse.
Tight ends have not been utilized as effectively by the Illini recently, but their output today gave Beckman a reason to smile.
“Today our tight ends were huge. They did an outstanding job,” he said. “Lacosse had a career day but there will be many more.”
On the first drive of the game, however, it was all about Ferguson. He accounted for 64 of team’s 75 yards on the drive, taking Illinois into the red zone. From there Scheelhaase took control, giving the hosts an early lead with a two-yard pass to LaCosse in the endzone.
On the second Illini drive, however, Scheelhaase missed his target and found Miami’s Brison Burris instead. The pick would be the only miscue for the Illini in the first half and the team quickly forgot the mistake.
Scheelhaase went back to the air on the third drive, passing for three consecutive first downs to take Illinois down to the Miami 23. Three plays later he threw up an eight-yard pass to Evan Wilson, who made a spectacular leaping grab to haul in Illinois’ second touchdown of the game. Senior Tim Russell completed a pass to Jon Davis for a two point conversion, giving the Illini a 15-0 lead with one-and-a-half minutes gone in the second quarter.
Illinois kept the trickery going after the conversion, with LaCosse getting his mitts on an onside kick to give Illinois the ball back at its own 44. On the first play, Scheelhaase aired it out again, hitting Steve Hull for a 30-yard gain. Three plays later Ferguson scampered into the endzone from 15 yards out, eluding three tackles along the way on a play that Beckman said left him slackjawed.
“When he came back to the sideline I just turned to him, looked at him and said, ‘Wow,’” he said.
Scheelhaase and Ferguson kept doing their thing on the fifth drive. The quarterback connected with Hull again, this time for 29 yards, and the running back following up with a 25-yard run to crack the red zone. Three plays later Scheelhaase had his fourth touchdown of the game, hitting Davis from four yards out.
The Illinois defense stood firm on the ensuing drive, picking up a fourth down stop near midfield to give the offense another chance to run. The Illini needed just two plays to score their fifth touchdown, LaCosse’s second of the game, on a 45-yard pass from Scheelhaase. The 36-0 score would hold through halftime.
LaCosse said Saturday’s offensive bonanza had a lot to do with how the tight ends have been employed and how they have grown under Cubit’s system.
“Being able to line up anywhere on the field, getting out catching balls and also being able to block — it’s night and day from last year and we’re having a lot of fun with it,” he said.
Illinois started the second half brightly, passing 400 overall yards shortly into the half, marking the third time this season the team has reached that milestone after only achieving the feat once in 2012 (against Charleston Southern). The Illini also started getting meaningful touches for young players on the first drive of the half. Redshirt freshman Devin Church scored the sixth touchdown of the day (the first of his career) on 12-yard run on that first Illini drive.
The RedHawks scored on their second drive of the half, albeit on a controversial play. Receiver Rokeem Williams caught a one-yard pass in the endzone only to have it stripped shortly after. Review confirmed the touchdown, however, and Miami had its first offensive touchdown since August 31.
When the Illinois offense took the field again, most of the players at the top of the depth chart remained on the sideline. Miami took advantage of the inexperienced lineup and picked off a Reilly O’Toole pass that caromed off Church’s pads. Miami turned its second interception into a touchdown, with Grant Niemic cracking the endzone from a yard out four minutes into the fourth quarter.
O’Toole got another shot at running the offense and did not suffer the same fate the second time around. The junior threw for 31 and ran for 29 yards on the drive, but it was freshman quarterback Aaron Bailey who finished things off. Bailey took over near the goal line and scored from six yards out.
Bailey got the ball again on the final Illini possession and moved the offense down to the Miami 11 yard line with both his feet and his passing. Bailey graciously took a knee once he reached the red zone, closing out the 50-14 win.
After the game some questions lingered about the 250 yards the defense allowed to a Miami team that had previously been averaging 149 yards per game. Linebacker Jonathon Brown, one of the leaders of the young group, was not too concerned about it, however.
Brown said his guys were showing improvement and explained how he helps them learn from their mistakes on and off the field.
“I explain what [young guys] did wrong, walk through the process and make sure they keep their heads up. Everyone makes mistakes, we just have to push past that. That’s what makes you great,” he said. “If you look at what improved on from last week, our tackling got a whole lot better. Now we’re focusing on Nebraska.”
With Big Ten season looming, Illinois will have to continue to improve defensively and keep rolling offensively to add more wins to their season total. The Illini travel to Lincoln next week to play Nebraska (3-1) in their conference opener.