UFR: Even the scoreboard struggled
Upon Further Review: We asked Marcus Jackson to break down everything that happened at Memorial Stadium on Saturday - inside the stadium and on the field:
— They won! There are a lot of folks wearing orange who are not happy with the too-close-for-comfort win against a program that employs the services of 22 fewer scholarship athletes. That shouldn’t happen, but the state of the program as it is, Illinois is in no position to apologize after wins. After losing nine straight entering the season, you take wins wherever and however you can get them, whether it’s against SIU or Urbana.
— Let’s not let whatever disappointment there is overshadow the performance of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. The fifth-year senior had a day to remember, throwing for a career-best 416 yards Saturday. It was quite the statement for Scheelhaase after the disappointment that was an injury-plagued junior season playing for a pair of rookie offensive coordinators. He completed 28 of 36 passes and would have been more prolific had Ryan Lankford not dropped a sure touchdown pass early. From the first play of the game when he hit Lankford with a 52-yard pass, Scheelhaase was locked in. Get this, he threw for 340 yards in the first half, the first time a UI quarterback has ever eclipsed 300 yards in the first half.
— Many were wondering how many folks would show up for the season opener. Last year’s 2-10 disaster not withstanding, it was hotter than heck outside. The heat index climbed north of 100 degrees at Memorial Stadium, and the game looked to be a UI rout early in the second half. The attendance was announced at 42,175, and though there weren’t that many bodies in the seats, the folks who stuck around for more than a half are among the best this world has to offer. But, after seeing how things played out on the field Saturday, is that attendance figure going to increase next week against Cincinnati?
— There’s a segment of Illinois fans who laughed when it was learned that Tim Beckman incorporated a halftime routine in a preseason scrimmage in an effort to improve upon the team’s lackluster showings coming out of the intermission locker room last season. I didn’t and truly thought it was a good idea. If your team struggles at something, do something to make it better. But, whatever the Illini did last season seems to have carried over into this season because Illinois’ third-quarter start was rough. The Salukis returned a kick 60 yards, and then a Scheelhaase interception led to an SIU touchdown. That whole start-of-the-second-half thing remains a work in progress.
— Salukis safety D.J. Cameron was credited with three tackles Saturday. It should have been two. Illinois H-back Tim Clary was in the midst of rumbling for a 35-yard touchdown reception when Cameron stuck out a foot and flat-out tripped him at the 2. Officials missed it, and Clary, a walk-on, was robbed of his first Illini touchdown. Shame on you, D.J. Cameron, and shame on the officials for missing it.
— With Illinois leading 42-27 in the fourth quarter and seven minutes left, backup quarterback Reilly O’Toole replaced Scheelhaase, the Illinois coaches seemingly thinking the game was in hand. Not so much. O’Toole was sacked and fumbled, which allowed the Salukis to cut the lead to eight points. Scheelhaase had the hot hand and the plan was for all three quarterbacks to play Saturday, but that was not the spot. What would the conversation be today if SIU had tied the game and somehow won it in overtime?
— V’Angelo Bentley had the most exciting play of the day, returning a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. Then on the next possession, the cornerback was burned for a touchdown pass by SIU’s John Lantz. Can’t fault the player there; he shouldn’t have been on the field. He realistically covered 200 yards on the return, and he had to be tired. Give the guy a possession off.
— If Saturday’s result is any indication, wins in the Big Ten are going to be awfully difficult to come by for the Illini. And after the beatdown Cincinnati laid on Purdue, the Bearcats might have a smooth ride through Champaign next week. Looking ahead, though, Purdue might be where Illinois ends that long Big Ten losing skid. The Boilers are a mess under first-year coach Darrell Hazell. It’s realistic the Illini’s conference losing streak could be at 20 entering the Nov. 23 game in West Lafayette, and if they have any confidence left, the streak ends there. We’ll have a better understanding after next week’s game how that Purdue game might play out.
— Former Illinois coach Lou Tepper returned to the Big Ten on Saturday, and it didn’t go so well for the Buffalo defensive coordinator. Tepper and the Bulls visited No. 2 Ohio State and found themselves behind 23-0 in the first quarter of a game they’d lose 40-20. In fairness to Tepper and the Bulls, the Buckeyes are going to light up the scoreboard on a lot of folks, and the Illini, along with the rest of the Big Ten, better prepare themselves for Urban Meyer and his squad.
— For all the flak the Big Ten has taken on the national stage the last few years, it might be time to direct that elsewhere. With Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska leading the way, the conference should take a step up this season. The Big 12, however, might become the new whipping boy. First, it was Kansas State falling to FCS North Dakota State on Friday, and then William & Mary took West Virginia to the wire before the Mountaineers claimed a 24-17 win.
— New Chicago Sun-Times Illinois football beat writer Steve Greenberg has an interesting situation. He works for a Chicago-based paper, covering the Illini, yet he lives in St. Louis. Got all that? All is well so far for Greenberg, who took over for Herb Gould in July.
“It’s unusual. It’s not by design,” said Greenberg, a Chicago Lane Tech grad. “I worked for the Sporting News for 13 years, moved there from Chicago to work in the office. And then Sporting News moved away in ’08, and I stayed there in a writing role, and I’m still in St. Louis. I’m thankful for my job, it’s good. This is football.”
— Veteran Chicago Tribune writer Vaughn McClure is also new to the Illinois beat. McClure was the longtime Bears beat writer for the Tribune before moving to the Illinois beat this summer. He will cover the football team this fall before transitioning into the Bulls beat for the paper.
in the stadium
— Illinois basketball recruiting target Leron Black was at Memorial Stadium along with members of the UI basketball staff. He left shortly after the first quarter. A campus tour and lunch at a nearby restaurant were also on the schedule for Black. The 6-foot-7 forward from Memphis (Tenn.) White Station toured the press box and suites at Memorial Stadium with coach John Groce.
— Former Illinois basketball coach Lou Henson was in attendance for Saturday’s game along with his nephew and former UI assistant coach Mark Coomes. Henson made the rounds in the press box and took in the game from a suite. Henson and wife Mary are planning to head back to New Mexico later this month.
— Flyin’ Illini basketball star Stephen Bardo was recognized during a timeout in the first quarter. The guard, who is now an analyst with the BTN after a long stint at ESPN, is in the process of releasing a book, “The Flyin’ Illini,” in November, reliving the team that captivated the college basketball world.
— Portland Trail Blazers center Meyers Leonard returned to campus to take in the game. The Robinson product and former Illini big man watched the game in one of the luxury suites, away from the heat. Leonard will begin his second training camp with the Blazers later this month.
— Arizona Cardinals running back and former Illini Rashard Mendenhall joined some other former Illinois teammates at Saturday’s game. Mendenhall, who is entering his sixth NFL season, first with Arizona, is expected to play in the Cardinals’ season opener next week after battling a right knee injury during the preseason. He was joined by his brother, former Illini Walter Mendenhall. Juice Williams, the last Illinois quarterback to throw for more than 400 yards in a game before Scheelhaase did so Saturday, was also on hand, along with DaJuan Warren and Jason Davis.