Illinois has lost too many football games to frown on a “W.”
But with next foe Cincinnati devouring Purdue 42-7, not even a modern Leonardo da Vinci could paint a happy face on Saturday’s nerve-racking 42-34 defeat of Southern Illinois.
Disbelievers have grown to outnumber believers, and a brilliant aerial performance by Nathan Scheelhaase couldn’t quite alter that perception.
With temperatures in the 90s, the Memorial Stadium crowd didn’t match the announced 42,175, and those hardy souls disappeared by the thousands as the game progressed. The north student section had barely enough to perform Block I duties at halftime, and they, too, withered away as the second half progressed.
Scheelhaase’s numbers through three quarters — 26 of 31 for 402 yards — are probably unmatched in UI history for those 45 minutes. When Illinois carried a 42-24 lead into the last 12 minutes, it was hard to imagine that the UI would have to stop SIU on the 3-yard line in the final minute for a 42-34 victory.
Air in judgment
First, a problem we had reason to suspect:
There were no sacks by the pass rushers, leaving the youthful Illini secondary vulnerable to Kory Faulkner’s 341-yard aerial assault. Said Tim Beckman:
“We made some bad reads, lost leverage on the screen and got beat on the throwback. We made a lot of freshman mistakes.”
Second, a problem we didn’t expect:
Illinois couldn’t run the football. Deft maneuvers behind the line allowed Josh Ferguson to break free for a 34-yard jaunt in the third quarter, but the UI’s other 29 rushes netted 15 yards. On average, that’s a half-yard per carry. Even on off-tackle power slants, Ferguson and Donovonn Young usually were interrupted behind the line of scrimmage.
Figuring into these numbers were 27 yards in losses taken by Scheelhaase, most of them on intended pass plays. The senior, who rushed for 868 yards as a freshman, showed no inclination to run as he hit big strikes of 52, 26, 30, 53, 28, 55 and 33 yards.
Ground to a halt
The problem with a weak-kneed ground game became apparent in the closing minutes.
Normally a team carrying a 42-24 lead with 12 minutes left is in good shape.
But the Illini couldn’t muster the clock-eating running game to tuck it safely away. And when sub QB Reilly O’Toole, who came in late, fumbled on his second pass attempt, the Salukis quickly covered 31 yards to make it 42-34 with 4:14 showing.
This forced UI coordinator Bill Cubit to make a difficult decision. Even if you run the ball, that’s too much time if you don’t make first downs. And if you pass, any incompletions stop the clock.
Scheelhaase was sacked on third and 5 and suddenly the Salukis had momentum coupled with chants of “SIU, SIU” in the near-empty stadium. They reached the 3-yard line in short order, but Faulkner overthrew his last two passes in the end zone. Whew!
Explaining his strategy, Cubit said:
“We decided early in the game to take what SIU was giving us.
“But when we are faced with those situations late (trying to protect a lead), we need to get into two tight ends and two backs and just run it at them. I thought we were OK (after a Salukis field goal made it 42-27) when we made good yardage on first down, but Reilly took that delay penalty and that changed it.
“At this point, everything is new to these guys. I think we’ll have more of a comfort level as we go ahead.”
Cubit was most pleased with the 94-yard drive before halftime. The Illini covered the distance in 1:15 as Scheelhaase hit seven consecutive completions, including a 55-yarder deep over the middle to Steve Hull. The last two in the drive went to tight end Jon Davis, who like Jonathan Brown and Corey Lewis displayed no lingering problems from the injuries that slowed those three last season.
Leader of the pack
Cubit said further:
“You need a quarterback that you can trust, and Nate was outstanding. He was 28 for 36 with a couple of drops. Not bad for a guy who (some say) can’t throw. He can throw. He is totally dedicated to his team, and he understands defenses. He ends up having to check the play 35 or 40 percent of the time.
“We gave him drills to help fix his throwing motion, and he works at them, even when we’re not with him. He enjoyed the fruits (Saturday).”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.