CHAMPAIGN — Running the football has been a struggle for the Illini much of the season as they entered Saturday’s game against Indiana ranked last in the Big Ten and 95th in the nation, averaging 123.4 yards per game.
But Illinois had success on the ground against the Hoosiers behind a 124-yard performance from sophomore Donovonn Young.
“It’s definitely a good thing that we got it going this week, and it’s easier to have faith in what we’re doing and how things are working out,” Young said. “We work hard, and we weren’t getting results. But this week, we finally got to see some of the stuff that we need to be doing.”
In all, Illinois rushed for 196 yards, the most since running for 231 against Arizona State in Week 2.
“The guys have gotten better, clearly, I think,” co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said. “We ran the ball pretty well, threw it when we needed to. We were better on third down than we have been, so those things we’ve got to build on and get to the point where we can win these kinds of games.”
For the second time this season, Illinois punt returner Tommy Davis muffed a punt, resulting in a turnover. Davis’ miscue occurred midway through the second quarter, giving Indiana the ball at the Illinois 22-yard line. The Hoosiers scored to take a 21-14 lead.
“I just saw the young man, he’s crushed,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “He said that play cost us the game. Not one play costs us a game, and that’s what you teach these young men. It’s a number of plays, and he’s just got to be more intelligent on making that decision on when he needs to be going after that ball.”
In addition to the muffs, Illinois hasn’t fared well at all returning punts. Illinois’ 2.09 yards per return is 117th nationally.
“We have not done a very good job on our return game. ... Our return game has struggled. We have problems blocking in space, and we’ve got problems catching punts,” Beckman said.
Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase limped into the postgame news conference but insisted it was nothing more than the normal bumps and bruises expected for a Big Ten signal-caller.
“I’m banged up, a little sore,” Scheelhaase said. “It’s a couple of things on the left side. It’s going to be all right. A little bit of treatment and I should be all right.”
Scheelhaase completed 17 of 27 passes for 176 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. He ran 26 times for 32 yards and was sacked seven times, losing 53 yards.
“The bumps and bruises probably don’t feel as bad if they come with a win,” Scheelhaase said. “I think everybody has that disappointing feeling that we’ve had quite frankly too many times. We’ve got to do something to change that.”
Late in the first quarter, Indiana starting quarterback Cameron Coffman threw a deep pass over the middle that was intercepted by Illinois’ Steve Hull. It was the last play of the game for Coffman, who was benched for freshman Nate Sudfeld.
“Cam’s been pretty good at taking care of the ball, and that’s got to be in our deal every week,” Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. “We think they’re both about the same; Cam’s a little more experienced. ... It was just the dynamics of the game today. They both have to get better, and we have to keep pushing them.”
Coffman completed 4 of 7 passes for 64 yards before he was lifted. Sudfeld was 10 of 15 for 107 yards and two touchdowns.
Hull had to leave the field repeatedly Saturday after reinjuring his right shoulder that has sidelined him for the better part of four games this season.
“I guess that speaks a little bit about Steve Hull and how he plays because he’s been playing with that shoulder really for two years now,” Beckman said.
Hull left the game for good midway through the fourth quarter after making five tackles to go along with his interception.
Running back Josh Ferguson also left the game early with an injury.
“Josh was more of a hip pointer-type deal,” Beckman said. I thought (Dami) Ayoola came in and did a good job.”
Former Illini Whitney Mercilus is off to a great start in his rookie season with the Houston Texans, and the first-round draft pick, who won the Hendricks Award as the nation’s top defensive end last season, spent his off week watching his former team play.
He’s played mostly on special teams for the Texans but saw some time at outside linebacker in last week’s win against Baltimore.
“I got in for 16 snaps against the Ravens and made the most of those,” Mercilus said. “There isn’t one weak spot on that defense. They’ve got to account for J.J. Watt, and on the other side there’s Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed and then I can step in there and help out. Hopefully I can put it together and be as good as those guys.”
Saturday’s Illinois loss was just as hard on Mercilus as they were when he played for the Illini.
“Today it was penalties that beat us, and they’ve got to get a rhythm and continue that from start to finish,” he said. “It really does hurt, and I feel like I’m a part of these guys and I want them to have success.”