CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Saturday was all about change in Champaign. The University of Illinois debuted new orange helmets, a beautiful new video board and a new offense under coordinator Bill Cubit. And, thankfully for fans, the product on the field did not much resemble what was seen for most of the 2012 season.
Illinois opened the 2013 season with its first win since Sep. 15, 2012, avoiding potential embarrassment against FCS foe Southern Illinois, 42-34.
“A ‘W’ is a ‘W,’ and it’s good way to start,” head coach Tim Beckman said after the game.
After showing a bit of rust in their first few series, the Illini started to click on all cylinders. Nathan Scheelhaase threw for a career-high 416 yards, 340 of those coming in the first half. Despite his big day, the senior quarterback remained humble and focused on his team.
“Honestly we’ll all put (the game) behind us and get to preparing for the next game because they’re (Cincinnati) a much different team,” Scheelhaase said. “I’ll totally forget about the record later tonight.”
Scheelhaase was sharp from the start, hitting Ryan Lankford with a 52-yard pass on the first play of the game, getting down to the SIU 31-yard line. The Illini showed some early season rust on the first drive, though, including Lankford, who dropped a wide-open pass a few yards from the end zone. Illinois had to settle for three after their bright start, with Taylor Zalewski booting a 33-yard field goal three-and-a-half minutes into the game.
The visitors would snatch a lead shortly after, giving the fans at Memorial Stadium chilling reminders of their 2-10 record from 2012. A bad punt and a 39-yard pass from Kory Faulkner to Jon Lantz set up Mika’il McCall for a short run to put the Salukis up, 7-3.
Illinois pushed the tempo after falling behind, moving to a no-huddle offense and giving Scheelhaase freedom to look downfield. Two quick passes to Lankford and a short pass to Josh Ferguson, who ran for a 26-yard gain, and the Illini were rolling. On the next play Martize Barr snagged a 30-yard reception to set up the hosts at the SIU 4-yard line.
The free-flowing drive stalled there for Illinois, however. A couple of incomplete passes and a holding penalty that negated a touchdown cost the team, and this time Zalewski could not offer any relief, sending a 32-yard field goal wide to the right of the post. Beckman chalked some of the errors up to the inexperience of some of the players his team fielded against the Salukis.
“We had 27 new players who had never traveled ... almost half our team had never done this before. We’re growing and maturing, though,” he said.
Things began to break Illinois’ way after the miss, however. After a couple quick possessions for both teams, Illinois went back to the air with terrific results. Ferguson caught a short pass and sprinted the rest of the way for a 53-yard touchdown reception, giving Illinois the lead again with nine to play in the first half.
On the ensuing drive, Tim Kynard forced a fumble from McCall on the first play, and Houston Bates recovered the ball on the Salukis’ 30-yard line. The hosts needed less than 30 seconds to crack the end zone again, with Lankford catching a 28-yard pass and Donovonn Young running it in from two yards out on the next play.
Lankford established himself as the favorite receiver early in the game, notching 115 receiving yards total for just his second career 100-yard game.
“Ryan played outstanding ... his maturity and how he’s played in the last 10 months has proven to this team that he can make plays,” Beckman said.
Illinois started the final possession of the first half with a couple quick passes from Scheelhaase followed by a 55-yard bomb to Steve Hull, moving Illinois into the red zone with 30 seconds to play. Jon Davis finished the drive shortly after with an 11-yard touchdown pass. The Illini kept their foot on the gas on the extra point, with holder Tim Russell connecting on the two-point pass to Matt LaCosse. With the conversion, Illinois took a 25-7 lead into halftime.
Illinois put together their most successful runs of the game on their second drive of the second half, with Scheelhaase running for eight and Ferguson running for seven and 34 on the next two plays. Sophomore Tim Clary put Illinois in the red zone with a 33-yard reception on the next play, and freshman quarterback Aaron Bailey finished the drive with his second rush of the day, a two-yard touchdown run.
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The Salukis continued to hang with Illinois, turning a 66-yard MyCole Pruitt reception into a field goal, but the hosts would quickly negate those points. On the ensuing kick, sophomore V’Angelo Bentley ran 100 yards to tie the school record for the longest kick-return touchdown.
Illinois could not sustain their dominance, however, and SIU made it interesting in the final 17 minutes. During that span Lantz scored on a 35-yard pass, Thomas Kinney kicked a field goal, the defense forced a fumble from Illini backup quarterback Reilly O’Toole and Pruitt scored on a one-yard pass to draw the score within eight, 42-34. The Illinois defense held firm at the goal line in the final minute, however, cooling the nerves of everyone in orange at Memorial Stadium, both players and fans.
Beckman acknowledged his team’s errors and committed his team to learning from the things that went wrong late in the game when they go over game film and start preparing for Cincinnati.
“I gathered the team after the game and said this is not the most glorious win, but I am proud of how team fought,” Beckman said. “We have to make strides and learn from our mistakes, but I cannot say enough about the leadership we had out there today.”
The Illini will need that leadership against next week when the Bearcats, who beat Purdue, 42-7, in their opener, travel to Champaign next Saturday. Kick-off for that game is scheduled for 11 a.m.