Spring game: 'Great leadership' leads Blue win
CHAMPAIGN — Walking near the weightroom inside Memorial Stadium this week, Bill Cubit didn’t break stride.
“Don’t say anything bad about me,” the new Illinois offensive coordinator joked to Illinois offensive lineman Corey Lewis while Lewis talked to a reporter.
Not much bad could come from the Illinois offense after Friday night’s annual spring game.
At least with Nathan Scheelhaase leading the Blue squad.
Scheelhaase, who orchestrated scoring drives on the Blue team’s first two possessions, led a 35-28 victory against the Orange squad.
Coach Tim Beckman was impressed by the new offense.
“It’s player friendly,” Beckman said. “Bill Cubit brings experience. He’s called many, many plays and has coached in many, many games.”
The game had an 8:05 p.m. kickoff because of live coverage by the BTN while an estimated 2,100 fans ventured to Memorial Stadium on a chilly night more apt for the fall.
Of course, Scheelhaase and Reilly O’Toole, who took the majority of snaps for the Orange, were not touched at all by the defense. Both wore white jersey tops, and both stayed clear of picking up any stains from the FieldTurf.
“He had a great touch on the football,” Beckman said of Scheelhaase. “You could hear there was some great leadership out there on that Blue team.”
The unit that was the worst in the Big Ten last season didn’t show its full playbook by any means, either. Two trick plays in the first half ended with a fumble and an interception.
Nor did the weather help much. Rain last year for the spring game. Cold this year.
“I don’t think it matters here in Champaign,” Scheelhaase said. “Whenever you schedule a spring game, it seems to be one of the worst weather days of the year.”
But even with temperatures in the 30s, Scheelhaase looked crisp utilizing Cubit’s offense, which featured him out of the shotgun on the majority of snaps but also under center. After completing 20 of 28 for 175 yards and an 8-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Lankford (nine catches for 77 yards) in the first half, Scheelhaase finished 24 of 32 for 210 yards.
“If anybody has ever tried to pick up a new offense, it’s simply not something you roll out of bed and can just do,” said J Leman, the former Illini linebacker who helped call Friday’s game on the BTN. “I understand it’s a work in progress. That being said, it’s good to have experienced quarterbacks, and I think they’re going to learn the curve a little bit faster than a rookie.”
O’Toole put up decent numbers (34 of 52 for 362 yards) but struggled making sure the Orange would hold on to the ball, throwing four interceptions. He also threw a pair of touchdowns.
“I thought the Blue team was much more consistent,” Beckman said. “I was happy with the way it went, but too many turnovers for the offense.”
Taylor Barton caught two passes from O’Toole. While playing defense.
“Taylor was leading the safeties. He made some plays,” Beckman said.
The defensive back from Orlando, Fla., returned one interception 45 yards for a touchdown to give the Blue a 28-0 lead with 5 minutes, 43 seconds left in the second quarter. He also recovered a fumble.
“We were just playing our defense, and I was reading the quarterback,” Barton said. They hung up in the air, and I just made plays on them.”
Illinois played without linebacker Jonathan Brown (shoulder) and defensive end Darrius Caldwell (grades). Starters missing on offense included tight end Jon Davis and senior Steve Hull, who is making the transition to wide receiver from defensive back. Both sat out with injuries. Wide receiver Darius Millines missed the game because of an indefinite suspension.
Illinois still has a way to go before talk of ending its 14-game Big Ten losing streak doesn’t sound hopeless (the Illini open Big Ten play at Nebraska in 175 days), but Friday night was possibly a start. Especially from an offensive viewpoint.
“I think reasons for optimism is establishing that identity,” Scheelhaase said. “I don’t know if that’s something we necessarily had last year on offense, defense or as a team in general. I think establishing that identity as the team we want to be and what we want our opponents to say about us as we walk off the field is very important.”