UI 44, Charleston Southern 0: Notebook
CHAMPAIGN — After the dismal performance last week at Arizona State, Illinois football fans were begging to get starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase healthy and back on the field. Backup Reilly O'Toole, who got the start in that game, threw for 54 yards, and his backup, Miles Osei, threw for 47. The duo combined to get sacked six times and intercepted three times.
"Obviously, we didn't perform like we wanted to last week ... Arizona State is a tough place to play at. Miles and I both gained a lot of confidence playing there," O'Toole said.
The confidence showed in O'Toole's performance Saturday in a 44-0 win against Charleston Southern. O'Toole set a school record, completing 83.9 percent of his passes (26 of 31) for 333 yards and five touchdowns. Osei went 4 of 6 for 32 yards.
"He was able to get the ball out of his hands, and that's our biggest thing is he gets the ball to those playmakers and lets them make plays, and they were able to do that today," co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said of O'Toole.
Ten different players caught passes for Illinois on Saturday, led by Ryan Lankford's seven receptions for 97 yards and two scores.
Though it was a forgettable performance in the desert, O'Toole said he learned from the experience. The difference?
"Execute, simple as that," said O'Toole, whose interception was the only turnover for the Illini on Saturday. "We had a good tempo, we didn't have any delay of games, which was good, and to start off drives well. We executed pretty well. Obviously, we'd like to run the ball a little better and we can't have any turnovers, especially in the red zone."
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Saturday marked the second straight game Scheelhaase missed while recovering from an injury to his left ankle. O'Toole made his second consecutive start Saturday and though he performed well, expect Scheelhaase to be back behind center when he's healthy.
"You can't lose your position due to an injury. I've never been that way," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. "It's about competition, and Nathan's won football games, also. Reilly keeps getting himself better and better, and that's why you compete on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; that's why you practice."
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The defense has been the strength of the Illinois program the past couple of years, but it was a battered bunch after giving up 45 points and 510 yards in the loss last week at Arizona State.
The guys on that side of the ball were happy to look up and see a "0" on the scoreboard Saturday — Illinois' first shutout since a 21-0 win against Western Illinois in 2007.
"That was one of our goals coming into the game was to shut them out and keep them under 100 yards. I think we almost achieved our goal of that also," defensive end Michael Buchanan said.
The Buccaneers picked up 125 total yards Saturday, 96 coming on the ground. They completed 5 of 17 passes for 29 yards.
"We had a nasty taste in our mouths coming off that Arizona State situation, and I know our guys were excited to come out and play to the best of their abilities," defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "At the end of the day, and I don't want to give you coachspeak, we just want to have one (more) point than they do. If the goose egg comes with it, then God be it. That's a great opportunity for those guys. I know they take great pride in it. We just want to make sure we're executing and playing to the best of our ability, and I thought we did that today."
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One of the many injured Illini who missed Saturday's game was center Graham Pocic, who had started 28 consecutive games.
"With Graham on the sideline, Nate on the sideline, 44 points is a great day," guard Ted Karras said. "He's our leader, him and Hugh (Thornton), but he's the center. He makes all the calls for us, so we had to adjust. Everyone had to step up a little bit."
The other guys held their own without Pocic, allowing one sack to the Buccaneers.
"(O'Toole) was great. He was making good checks. He checked us right into the pressure they were bringing. I think there was one sack on him, and I think that was just some miscommunication between us and him, so it was great," Karras said.
If there's one gripe about the line and the offense from Saturday's game, it's that the running game struggled at times. Illinois ran for 114 yards, averaging 3.8 yards per attempt.
"We'll be all right. We just have to get off the ball lower, get our hands inside and drive them off the ball," Karras said.
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Another of the banged-up Illini was place-kicker Nick Immekus. After kicking the PAT on Illinois' second touchdown, Immekus left the game with what Beckman called a muscle pull.
Taylor Zalewski, who has handled the kickoffs this season, stepped in on the PAT and field goal unit.
Zalewski made all four PATs and just got a 47-yard field goal to clear the crossbar in the third quarter.
"I was glad to get out there, I was pretty excited about that kick, actually," Zalewski said of his field goal. "Great hold, great snap. I got a little underneath it, barely got it, snuck it in. It was right down the middle, though. I was really happy about that."
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After Lankford's 4-yard touchdown reception to open the scoring, Illinois lined up with its PAT unit but ran a fake. Osei's two-point conversion pass fell incomplete.
"That's just something we do. If you've ever watched any of our Toledo games, that's what we did," Beckman said. "We're going to get into multiple looks; people are going to have to prepare for it. We wanted to try to gain an advantage. We knew it would be something that could possibly be open, and it was. Both routes were open, and he could have kept it."
Illinois also went the aggressive route offensively, opting to go for it on fourth down three times. The Illini converted twice.
"We're trying to make the Fighting Illini better. If that means going for it on fourth down, it means going for it on fourth down," Beckman said. "We were in a situation today that we have to make our football team better, and we have not been successful on third downs. So, fourth-down situations are things I think can help our football team throughout this football season."
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True freshman Dami Ayoola made a highlight-reel touchdown run in the second quarter, looking to be stopped for a first down among a pile of defenders, only to emerge, spin away, maintain his balance by putting his hand on the turf and escape for a 28-yard touchdown run.
"You've seen him do it. He stepped in during two-a-days. He runs with great passion when he runs the football; he's not a quitter," Beckman said. "He got hit by a couple guys, kept his feet moving, got that first down and then finished it up. You know that's the capabilities of Ayoola. I'm proud of the way he was able to perform."
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Charleston Southern coach Jay Mills played football at Illinois State and was an assistant coach at Bloomington Central Catholic in the early 1980s, so he's familiar with central Illinois. The opportunity to return to the Midwest was one he's been looking forward to.
"I know our young men looked forward to it," Mills said. "We thank the University of Illinois for the first-class treatment that they showed the team and our university this week."
Charleston Southern received $410,000 from Illinois for the game.
"It helps when Illinois and other FBS schools play these games," Mills said. "It helps every single college football program in the country at that level. That's the basics of it that few people understand, so it is huge for the continued growth and development of football at the collegiate level."