The Fighting Illini came into Saturday's game against Washington after two weeks of incredible offensive explosiveness. They scored 87 total points in their first two games, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase put up video-game numbers.
But this was Washington, the No. 19 team in the country, and the step up in competition made the Illini look mortal, as Illinois dropped a 34-24 game in front of 47,312 at Soldier Field.
A wild third quarter proved to be the difference in the game, as both teams awoke from an offensively dismal first half to combine for five touchdowns. Unfortunately for the Illini, Washington scored three of those, making any comeback attempt too steep a climb for Tim Beckman's team.
"Defensively, we did not slow them down," Beckman said. "Tackling was probably the major concern in the third and fourth quarter. We've got to tackle better when we're playing a team that's a top-20 football team.
"We haven't come out in the third quarter and played really this year. Again, it's something that we've worked on. You practice running into the locker room, coming out, re-teaching it all. But it's something that we've got to get better at doing. It's that third quarter that's really not been our quarter. I can say that every other quarter that we've played, we've played extremely well except for that third quarter."
Washington led, 10-3, at halftime, following a first half that saw both teams continually come up empty. Illinois missed some opportunities -- including a missed field goal and a punt following a pair of Washington fumbles. Meanwhile, the Huskies committed penalty after penalty leading to little production for them in the first half.
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But the second half opened with a bang, rather a series of bangs. Washington marched down the field, picking up 75 yards and a touchdown of seven running plays. Illinois responded with a touchdown on a run-heavy drive of their own. But then Washington took off, using their uptempo offensive style to score on each of their next two drives to build a large 31-10 lead.
Both the air and ground attacks worked for the Huskies. Quarterback Keith Price completed 28 of 35 passes for 342 yards and two touchdowns, while running back Bishop Sankey rushed 35 times for 211 yards and a touchdown. The dual attack made things hard for the Illini defense.
"That's always difficult because you've always got to be able to make teams one-dimensional," defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "You can't allow them to throw the ball and run the ball. You've got to take something away. Unfortunately, we weren't able to do that tonight."
But the Illini never rolled over, a fact that was omnipresent in the postgame comments of Illini coaches and players. Scheelhaase hit Ryan Lankford for a 72-yard touchdown pass at the end of the third quarter. And wide receiver Miles Osei completed a 35-yard trick-play pass in the fourth on a drive that ended in a 10-yard touchdown run for backup quarterback Aaron Bailey, bringing the Illini within seven points at 31-24.
Washington put a field goal on the board to make it a 10-point game, and Scheelhaase threw an interception to seal Illinois' fate. But the team was happy with its resiliency after falling behind by three touchdowns.
"I am proud of how our guys fought out there," Scheelhaase said. "As a player, that's fun to be out there with guys that are willing to fight like that, willing to step up when adversity strikes. ... You look at it like a boxing match, and we kept swinging. We kept throwing punches and giving it all we had. It is fun to be part of teams like that, and that's something that I don't think we've had. I didn't see that a lot last year, so it was good to see that."
It was a strange set of expectations coming into this game for this Illini team. This was a team that went 2-10 a year ago up against one of the nation's top-20 teams. Yet, after the showings in its first two games of the season, Illinois maybe expected to fare better than a very respectable 10-point defeat.
The edges for the Huskies were definitely apparent. The fast-paced tempo affected the defense, which Beckman admitted though refused to use as an excuse. And offensive coordinator Bill Cubit acknowledged that the Huskies had a more present pass rush than either of the Illini's first two opponents.
But despite all that, the Illini hung in there and kept displaying some of that offensive excellence against a team that held Boise State to nothing but a pair of field goals. Though it was a loss, the Illini were clearly proud of how they played, and it's an attitude that should reward them as they move forward.
"It's a long season ahead, so I think we should definitely be looking at it with a glass-half-full mentality," Scheelhaase said. "We've got a bye week coming up and our last non-conference test with Miami of Ohio coming back to Memorial Stadium. So we're excited. I think we're just excited about the opportunity ahead of us."