CHAMPAIGN – Illini fans will be forgiven for checking their glasses or the picture settings on their television on Saturday. What they were seeing was no error. It was the new Illinois offense.
A week after putting up record-setting numbers against Southern Illinois, the Illini were right back it against Cincinnati. Illinois posted 522 yards of total offense and cruised to a 45-17 victory over the Bearcats at Memorial Stadium. After the game, head coach Tim Beckman spoke glowingly of the work his players did in the win, deferring all credit from the coaching staff to the athletes.
“We played four quarters of football…I can’t say enough for the preparation these players put in to get ready,” he said. “All in all, definitely a team effort and I can’t be more proud.”
Illinois (2-0) found success against the Bearcats (1-1) in multiple areas of the game. Nathan Scheelhaase and the Illini receivers were once again in fine form, collecting 312 yards and four touchdowns through a balance of quick, short strikes and devastating deep plays. The receivers were also successful moving the ball on the ground, with Ryan Lankford and Martize Barr each picking up big gains on end-around plays. Not to be outdone, the Illini running backs more than tripled their rushing output from a week ago, compiling 210 yards and scoring twice.
The well-balanced offense was a product of the team being unselfish and working at it’s highest level, according to wide receiver Steve Hull. The converted defensive back said on Saturday that the offense was the best he had ever seen in his four years at Illinois.
“Our individual goals don’t outweigh our overall goal, which is winning the game. Whoever gives us the best chance to do that, we’re all for,” Hull said. “Coach Cubit has mentioned to us a lot that we’re not going to be successful through just one person. The fact that we had multiple guys contributing everyday and opening up and making big plays is something that has motivated everybody.”
Illinois kick-started it's offense on the second drive of the game, converting a third-and-long to march 76 yards and score the game’s first touchdown. The breakthrough came on a 48-yard pass from Scheelhaase to Josh Ferguson over the top of the Cincinnati defense.
On the ensuing Bearcats’ drive, the Illini defense excelled, keeping the visitors from crossing the 50-yard line before freshman Taylor Barton snagged an interception. The Illini defense continued to press the Bearcats hard all game. Their persistence paid off as leaders Jonathon Brown and Mason Monheim recorded the team’s first sacks of the season.
Monheim credited the improved defensive performance to the team’s attitude in the days before the game.
“All week we’ve been preparing like we should have…coaches put us in position to make plays and we did that a lot of the time,” he said. The Illini offense also contributed as they controlled the ball for nearly 37 minutes of the game.
“We’re a team out there, whether it’s offense or defense we are together. So when they’re moving it, we will too,” he added.
The Illinois run game began to move the ball with more efficiency as the game moved into the second quarter. Donovonn Young and Scheelhaase did a good job finding space between Bearcats defenders and their solid runs set up a big end-around run from Lankford. The receiver took the sweep wide left before cutting back across the field behind excellent blocking to score the second touchdown of the day. His touchdown put Illinois ahead 14-0 with 12:45 to go in the first half.
Another strong defensive stand on the ensuing drive forced another three-and-out from Cincy, which the offense did not waste. The Illini kept the Bearcats off balance, churning up 76 yards in four minutes, culminating with a 23-yard play action pass from Scheelhaase to tight end Evan Wilson.
On Cincinnati’s final drive of the first half, however, the Illini looked more like the team that played at Memorial Stadium in 2012. Bearcats’ quarterback Munchie Legaux led his team 62 yards through the Illini defense before connecting with Max Morrison for the 1-yard touchdown pass with eight seconds left before halftime. Cincinnati avoided going to the half scoreless, but Illinois remained in control of the game at the half, 21-7.
After one half of football, Scheelhaase had already racked up 168 yards passing and two touchdowns. In addition to the two touchdowns he threw against Southern Illinois, the Illini quarterback tied his touchdown production for the entire 2012 season. Likewise, the Illinois runners surpassed their output in the SIU game, picking up 76 rushing yards in the first half against Cincy, 10 more than they had all game against the Salukis.
Cincinnati received the ball to start the second half, but Legaux was unable to get his offense rolling again after intermission. On their second possession of the half, kicker Tony Milano did his part for the Bearcats and split the uprights on a 37-yard field goal, cutting the Illini lead to 21-10.
On the next Cincinnati possession, Legaux rediscovered his groove, connecting on passes of 11, 14 and 32 yards and marching to the Illini one-yard line. The Illinois defense came away with a huge stop on the goal line, forcing a fumble from the quarterback on fourth-and-goal.
“Defense rose up to the occasion. It was a close call at the end of that series,” Beckman said of his team’s goal line stand.
After the stop, Illinois ate up both clock time and yardage, moving 99 yards over 5:07. The drive saw the Illini rush for 45 yards and Scheelhaase pass for 54 yards, the final pass a 22-yard strike to Hull in the corner for a touchdown.
The Bearcats struck back quickly, driving 76 yards over 14 plays and scoring on a 13-yard R.D. Abernathy run just 1:14 after the Illinois touchdown. The third quarter would draw to a close shortly after the Cincy touchdown with Illinois leading 28-17.
The fourth quarter opened with a frenzy. The Illini had big gains on the drive in the air and on the ground. Scheelhaase connected with Hull for 23 yards, and Ferguson sprinted around the end for 22 yards. Illinois could not find the end zone this time around and had to settle for a Taylor Zalewski field goal with 10 minutes left in the game.
The Bearcats momentum stalled as Legaux suffered what appeared to be a severe knee injury, forcing him to exit the game on a stretcher. Cincinnati was deflated by the loss of their quarterback. Illinois added two more touchdowns via a circus catch from Barr and an eight-yard run from Young before the final whistle.
The win is certainly a confidence builder for the Illini. Cincinnati ran all over Purdue in week one, 42-7. The celebrations will not last long, however. In true Illini fashion, the players and coaches asserted that their attention would be focused on 20th ranked Washington come Sunday.
“There were a lot of happy faces,” Monheim said about the locker room after the game. “We’re going to celebrate this tonight, but tomorrow we’ll get ready for the Huskies.”
Illinois will play Washington (1-0) at Soldier Field in Chicago for the schools “Chicago Homecoming” on September 14. Kickoff for the Washington game is scheduled for 5 pm.