CHAMPAIGN — Other than the excitement of Tim Beckman picking up his first win at Illinois, the big news coming out of Memorial Stadium was the injury to quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
The junior left the field on a cart in the third quarter, his left ankle wrapped in ice. Scheelhaase did not attend the postgame media session. The Illini were in control when Scheelhaase went down, but Beckman didn't know if Scheelhaase could have returned if the team needed him.
"I don't know. I know he's a very, very competitive player, so I would expect that if he was capable of going he would have went," the coach said.
Scheelhaase was 11-for-18 passing for 126 yards with an interception and a touchdown. He rushed for 21 yards and a touchdown on seven carries.
"Nate getting injured on that drive kind of changes the way you call some of the things that you want to do," co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said.
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In Scheelhaase's absence, Reilly O'Toole took over at quarterback and the offense struggled to mount much of an attack, gaining 8 yards in the fourth quarter.
"Not too good," O'Toole said when assessing his performance. "I messed up a few plays. At the same time, I took care of the ball — there was one that was pretty close (to being intercepted). A few plays here and there could have gone differently, but I can do better, for sure."
O'Toole completed 2 of 3 passes for 7 yards.
"Obviously didn't like the way things went when Nate went out," Beatty said. "The package shrinks a little bit when you've got to go with guys who didn't have as many reps. We'll get those things worked out."
In the event Scheelhaase can't play next week at Arizona State, the staff is confident O'Toole can run the show.
"I think Reilly was kind of up and down, to be honest," Beckman said. "Not that he's not capable, he's definitely capable of doing it. We've got to make sure we give him a little bit more of what we want him to do instead of letting him make some of those checks he was doing. Reilly O'Toole is a good football player, there's no question. He has played better than he did today. We know Reilly O'Toole is very capable of being a Division I college quarterback."
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It's been a while since Ryan Lankford saw the end zone. But when the junior receiver caught a 64-yard touchdown pass from Scheelhaase in the first quarter, he remembered the routine.
"Just give the ball back to the referee, that's all I had to do," Lankford said.
The touchdown was the second in Lankford's career. The first came at Michigan in 2010.
"It felt good. We ran the play a lot in practice this week," he said. "I knew what I could do. As soon as I saw the safety come down, I said, 'It's over, I'm just going to use my speed and run by him.' "
Last year was a struggle for Lankford as he caught 12 passes for 108 yards and averaged 1.7 yards on 19 punt returns.
"I was happy to see that for Ryan. Ryan is a very, very good football player and a very, very good person," Beckman said. "Football means something to Ryan Lankford and the Illini means something to Ryan Lankford, so I was happy to see him perform the way he did."
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Ever since Beckman arrived in January, Ashante Williams has stood out.
He did again Saturday, clinching the win with a 60-yard interception return for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
"Ashante has had a great, great eight months. It's not just about a camp, winter workouts or spring football. He has been providing leadership for the last eight months that I've been here," Beckman said. "It did not surprise me when he made that play. He's one of our team captains going out into the game, which we will choose each week. Well-deserved and it did not surprise me that he made that play and ran for a touchdown."
Williams, who plays a hybrid linebacker/safety position called star, also led the team with a career-high nine tackles.
"I probably watched 10 hours of film this week. I knew those routes were coming," Williams said. "I kind of baited them into throwing the ball. I showed outside leverage like we were in one of our deeper coverages, and right before he (snapped) the ball I slid in and baited him into the throw."
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The buzz during camp was that tight end Jon Davis would play all over the place. He'd play his natural position, split out to wide receiver and even get some carries out of the backfield.
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound sophomore did it all Saturday. He led the Illini in rushing with 54 yards on six carries, not that he'll be bragging to Illini running backs Josh Ferguson (11 carries, 38 yards) and Donovonn Young (11 carries, 2 yards).
"Those guys are really talented. I'm just trying to do my role," he said. "I feel like I got my feet wet today. First game of the season I didn't know exactly where I was going to be."
Expect to see more of Davis in the backfield, and when the passing game gets going he will be involved, too.
"The last eight months we've been working with Jon and letting him play numerous positions," Beckman said. "We've put him in the backfield, put him at tight end, flex him out at wide receiver and he can do a lot of things. We kind of got on a roll with what he was doing there, and that's why we kept giving him the mail and he was toting it."
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The stats don't show it, but Michael Buchanan dominated the game on the defensive side for Illinois.
The 6-6, 240-pound defensive end finished the game with two tackles for loss, including a sack, and he intercepted a pass that he batted in the air at the line of scrimmage.
The Homewood-Flossmoor product made life difficult for Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder all afternoon.
"I was happy for Michael. He really is a heck of a football player, there's no question about it," Beckman said. "He's just tapped how good he can be, in my opinion. I've been around some great defenses in my life, and Michael Buchanan can be an extremely good football player."
For his part, Buchanan was disappointed the Illini couldn't record the shutout.
"I was very upset. That's one of the things we talk about in the locker room, and we weren't able to get it," Buchanan said. "We still feel like we played very good defense. Western Michigan is a very good offense. In the past they've been very good, so I think we did a good job against them."
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Four true freshmen: V'Angelo Bentley, Mike Svetina, Mason Monheim and Justin Hardee played in Saturday's game, and playing early is something Beckman uses to entice high school players to come to Illinois.
"I hope that players sign here and want to play as freshmen because as you see we played some freshmen today," he said.
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Illinois fielded some of the worst special teams units in the country last year, and the hope is those units improve in 2012. Punter Justin DuVernois had an up-and-down day, and his punting average of 43.8 was boosted by a 72-yarder to end the first half.
"I was happy with the way Justin punted, averaging 43 yards a punt. We want to net 39," Beckman said.
DuVernois' net average was 36.8.
Kicker Nick Immekus missed a 45-yard field goal wide right in the first quarter but came back to nail a 43-yarder a few minutes later.
Illinois' only kick return opportunity came on a punt. Northern Illinois transfer Tommy Davis picked up 1 yard.