CHAMPAIGN — He’s as positive a guy as there is on the Illinois football roster, but after a 17-3 loss to Minnesota on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, Nathan Scheelhaase was in need of someone to lift his spirits.
The black crosses drawn under his eyes fading, Illinois’ junior quarterback addressed a throng of reporters with his head lowered and his voice cracking at times. Scheelhaase shouldered the blame for Illinois’ latest defeat. His fourth-quarter fumble in which the ball was swatted from his hands as he extended for an extra yard on a quarterback sneak ended a chance to march down the field to tie the game and set the Golden Gophers up at the 19. Minnesota scored three plays later on a 12-yard touchdown run by Donnell Kirkwood (152 rushing yards, two TDs) to put the game out of reach.
It was the second lost fumble of the game for the quarterback, who threw for 175 yards and ran for 24.
“For me personally, that’s a tough one,” Scheelhaase said. “I felt like I let a lot of people down. Coaches and people will always say it doesn’t come down to one player, but I didn’t feel good about how I let us down there at the end.”
Illinois’ seventh consecutive loss was the collective effort of an offense that couldn’t make plays when it counted most. The Illini (2-8, 0-6 Big Ten) settled for a field goal in the first quarter after two failed attempts from the Minnesota 1 and didn’t cross the 50-yard line in the second half until midway through the fourth quarter.
“This is college football, come off the football, regardless of who was running, Donovonn Young or Nathan Scheelhaase, and get the ball a yard,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said.
“It’s frustrating,” co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said after his unit managed 276 total yards. “It ain’t Nate’s fault. It isn’t any one person’s fault besides mine. I need to do better, give these guys a better plan, call better plays and put them in better situations. That’s my job and I’m not doing a good enough job of that right now.”
On the other side, Minnesota (6-4, 2-4) celebrated bowl eligibility with its fans as if Memorial Stadium was home. One can’t blame the Gophers for feeling that way. The win was their first on the road in the Big Ten since a 38-34 win at Memorial Stadium in November of 2010, ending a six-game skid. Minnesota has now won four straight against the Illini in Champaign.
“It definitely hurts, we didn’t want to be the team that they became bowl eligible against,” senior Michael Buchanan said. “Obviously, when they did, it hurt.”
Illinois’ Big Ten losing streak extended to 12 with the loss, and Saturday was the first time the Illini failed to score a touchdown in 83 home games.
“Nobody freaking wants to lose,” Beckman said. “They all hurt.”
Play of the game
Trailing 10-3 with about two and a half minutes to play facing third and 1 from his own 29, Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is stopped on a sneak, tries to extend the ball across the line to get the first down and has it swatted away. Minnesota recovers his fumble and puts the game out of reach with a touchdown three plays later.
Numbers game: 11
The Illini had the ball 11 times Saturday and produced points — a 20-yard Nick Immekus field goal — once. Six Illinois possessions ended with punts, two ended with lost fumbles, another on downs and the final possession was in progress when the game ended.
What it means
Minnesota’s going bowling for the first time under former Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill and the Illini again are trying to pick themselves up after another defeat to find something to motivate them for the remaining two games on the schedule.
The home finale — that at one time looked winnabel — against a Purdue team that started the Big Ten season with five straight losses. But the Boilers picked up a road win Saturday in Iowa City and will look to ruin Senior Day by picking up one of the two wins they will need to end the season to become bowl eligible.