Illinois threw the ball. And threw it some more. Nathan Scheelhaase established the most passing yards in the first half with his 340-yard effort before finishing with 416. As great as he was early, that’s how bad the defense was late. Even though half the crowd left by the time Kory Faulkner’s pass fell incomplete in the end zone to seal the win, plenty of issues arose that defensive coordinator Tim Banks will need to address this week.
What it means
Bill Cubit probably could get elected mayor of Champaign and Urbana. Without the offensive outburst, Illinois loses its only winnable game of the year and the nine-game losing streak doesn’t end. The new offensive coordinator wasn’t afraid to go for the big play. Repeatedly. Imagine what Wes Lunt or Aaron Bailey might look like next year if Cubit’s still around.
Tommy Tuberville’s Bearcats. Cincinnati showed it could become Jim Delany’s newest member if the invite ever went its way, making Darrell Hazell’s debut at Purdue a nightmare. It’s not hyperbole or straight-up coachspeak to say next Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff against Cincinnati is the biggest game of the season. Beat Cincinnati and the outlook on what Tim Beckman’s second year is will completely change.
1. Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois
2. V’Angelo Bentley, Illinois
3. Josh Ferguson, Illinois
CHAMPAIGN — They stood just past the north end zone at Memorial Stadium, singing the alma mater.
No smiles. No chest bumps. No uproarious celebrations.
Illinois did win Saturday. Beat Southern Illinois 42-34.
You couldn’t tell looking at the players’ faces.
Or from the anxiety built up among the few hundred students still left and the smattering of fans throughout the rest of Memorial Stadium.
Or from the sigh of relief athletic director Mike Thomas exhaled while Illinois coach Tim Beckman, his staff and his players jogged off the field.
Illinois survived Southern Illinois. Barely.
“We just came up 3 yards short,” SIU coach Dale Lennon said.
The victory kept the program’s unbeaten record against FCS foes intact.
Yet the win didn’t do much to stifle an unhappy fan base yearning to see a turnaround in Beckman’s second season.
Illinois nearly gave away the 22-point lead it had built up past the halfway point of the third quarter. V’Angelo Bentley’s school-record-tying 100-yard kickoff return put Illinois ahead 39-17 with 5 minutes, 30 seconds remaining. But the dramatics were just starting.
“I wouldn’t say I was nervous late because Coach Beck always harps on making the play and keeping our poise,” Bentley said. “We just had to make a play for our team, the community. Everybody. We have to grow from it.”
Having to deny the Salukis on fourth and goal from Illinois’ 3-yard line in the final minute doesn’t do much for good vibes, a theme Beckman has stressed — often — the past nine months. Who knows how long he’ll incorporate the message if Illinois plays inconsistently, like it did Saturday, for the rest of the season.
“Although it was not the most glorious win, I was very proud of the way the team fought,” Beckman said. “There’s no question that we’ve got to make strides and learn.”
Learn how to avoid costly penalties late. A sideline interference call on defensive coordinator Tim Banks helped keep the Salukis’ final drive going.
Banks said he didn’t think he made contact with any officials.
“I haven’t been on the sideline in a couple of years, and again, in the heat of the battle, I probably got too close,” Banks said. “That’s really the reality of it.”
The reality for Illinois is this, too.
Despite Nathan Scheelhaase’s career-best day (28 of 36 for 416 passing yards) and despite a revamped offense under new coordinator Bill Cubit that shows potential, questions linger about Illinois. Mainly with the defense.
Especially with Cincinnati, which handily won 42-7 at Purdue, coming to Champaign next Saturday.
“I understand why concern would be there,” defensive end Tim Kynard said. “I thought we played well early. First half, we looked great. Second half, it wasn’t too pretty, and they made more plays, but we came out with a win.”