Tate: Backups strut their stuff
CHAMPAIGN — Grab your lantern and help brighten my walk through the darkness. This is the latest in my never-ending search for meaning.
On a sunny, windless Saturday — perfect for passing and catching — sophomore Reilly O'Toole set a completion percentage record for Illini quarterbacks throwing at least 20 balls. O'Toole hit his first 10 attempts and finished at .839 on 26 of 31 despite a drop by otherwise-efficient rookie Justin Hardee.
O'Toole had five TD strikes and 333 yards after one possession of the fourth quarter. This was the UI's most prolific aerial output since Nathan Scheelhaase marched the Illini for a last-minute TD against Northwestern on Oct. 1, pushing the UI's passing output to 391 yards that day.
OK, what does it mean? What are the considerations?
Did I mention that Saturday's opponent was Charleston Southern, an overmatched foe that didn't put up much of a fight in losing its 15th consecutive game, 44-0? Did you notice that the visitors "clogged the box" defensively and employed man-to-man coverage in the secondary? Wasn't it obvious that they couldn't stay with swift No. 12, Ryan Lankford, who had all seven of his catches for 97 yards and two TDs by halftime?
The Buccaneers were in such awe that they committed 10 penalties, several for overlooking the 11-man rule.
Air of confidence
This was last week in reverse, with Illinois rediscovering the role as bully.
Just seven days ago, in a 45-14 embarrassment at Arizona State, O'Toole seemed lost in his first career start, stepping aside early while Miles Osei engineered the UI's only first-half score. O'Toole played the entire second half at Tempe, finishing with 54 yards on 14 pass attempts. A week prior to that, he had been unimpressive when he replaced Scheelhaase in the second half of a 24-7 defeat of Western Michigan. And when he stepped in for Scheelhaase last November at Minnesota, he produced 63 yards on 21 throws.
But in this search for meaning, consider what confidence can do for a young athlete. O'Toole started strong Saturday and became increasingly efficient, regaining the comfort he enjoyed as a Wheaton Warrenville South superstar who threw 66 TD passes in his last two prep seasons.
He was sharp. With one exception. Flustered by a blitz at the Buccaneer 10 in the second quarter, he retreated and threw blindly off his back heel, creating an easy interception. It was his only serious mistake of the day.
Now, with center Graham Pocic, tailback Josh Ferguson and Scheelhaase likely to return for the night contest against Louisiana Tech, where does O'Toole fit?
Anticipating the question, coach Tim Beckman stated: "A starter can't lose his position due to an injury." Role call
"My role," O'Toole responded, "will be the same next week as it is every week. It's class and practice, and we'll get ready like we always do. We prepare for every game as though it's the New York Giants.
"As it happened today, we were able to take some shots downfield because they were playing a lot of man, and our receivers were getting open."
The UI run game suffered, which is acceptable under the circumstances. The Illini netted an acceptable 231 yards on the ground at Arizona State despite 10 running plays that lost yards. Those 231 yards didn't help the result. On Saturday they netted a meager 114 on the ground, and it didn't matter.
"We always try to take what the defense gives," co-coordinator Chris Beatty said. "Charleston Southern loaded up and blitzed a lot. We had to get them off of us, so we took advantage by going downfield."
Beatty said it "wasn't normal preparation this week because we were without our starting center, quarterback and running back. We had to make some adjustments."
In O'Toole's case, this means a lot of dropback and rollout passes, as opposed to the misdirection runs at which Scheelhaase excels.
When Scheelhaase returns, how will this affect the overhead game? He has not been impressive of late, throwing for 126 yards or fewer in four of his last five games. But he didn't have the good fortune of playing against Charleston Southern, and that holds a lot of meaning in comparing these two quarterbacks.
— Illinois hasn't so much as bobbled the football in three games, but O'Toole was charged with a fumble when he threw out of bounds and it was ruled a lateral. Technically, it's a fumble even though it never touched the ground in bounds.
— After kicker Nick Immekus and tight end Evan Wilson limped off, one quick sideline shot with the binoculars counted 12 Illini in unable-to-play status. Houston Bates better get well quick after the way freshman Mason Monheim performed at middle linebacker.
— It's a sore subject with some, but we must again guesstimate the actual attendance Saturday. The paid number was 45,369, but the turnstile count must surely have been under 35,000, perhaps well under. This marks two of the worst September turnouts since the late 1960s. The next two offer a great deal more in terms of competitiveness.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.