UI 42, SIU 34: Notebook (w/video)
CHAMPAIGN — If Nathan Scheelhaase can average 416 passing yards every game the rest of the season, watch out, Tony Eason.
Scheelhaase would like to duplicate his effort, which would result in almost 5,000 passing yards if he equals Saturday’s output. Eason holds the single-season school record for passing yards with 3,671 in 1982.
“The exciting thing about our offense is we feel there’s a lot that we can improve on,” Scheelhaase said. “I felt we did a lot (Saturday), and I’m sure that our opponents ahead will have a lot to prepare for, but we’ve still got a long way to go, and that’s the exciting part.”
Scheelhaase’s 416 yards are the 10th-best total in school history, and he became the first quarterback to surpass 400 yards passing since Juice Williams threw for 462 against Minnesota in 2008.
“That’s real nice to hear,” wide receiver Ryan Lankford said. “Any time passing yards are high, that means guys are getting the chance to touch the ball and make plays when they need to.”
New offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said it was interesting only having to call plays after spending the past eight seasons as Western Michigan’s head coach.
But he was pleased with Scheelhaase’s effort, with the exception of his third-quarter interception.
“That’s the first time me and him have worked together,” Cubit said. “We’ve got some things we need to straighten out, but a good start. Not great, but good. Now it’s all how much better are we going to get.”
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Give Josh Ferguson the ball in space and the Joliet Catholic product showed what he could do.
The junior had a team-high 49 yards on nine carries but had a career-high 103 receiving yards on four catches, including a 53-yard touchdown pass where he did most of the damage after he caught a screen pass from Scheelhaase.
Add in Lankford’s team-high 115 receiving yards on six catches and it was the first time Illinois had two players with at least 100 receiving yards in a game since the 2011 season opener against Arkansas State.
Ferguson’s touchdown, which gave Illinois the lead for good, was also his first at Illinois.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the end zone, so it’s great to be back in there,” Ferguson said. “I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.”
Lankford could have had more yards. After Scheelhaase hit him on a 52-yard play-action pass to start the game, the senior dropped what looked like a sure touchdown on Illinois’ opening drive.
“I’m not going to be able to sleep (Saturday) night,” Lankford said. “I knew the safety went to the middle, and I beat the guy on the outside. I saw the ball coming, and I just relaxed. I’ve just got to keep that aggressive mind-set.”
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Going into Saturday, Illinois planned to use three quarterbacks. It did.
Reilly O’Toole played one forgettable series in which he fumbled. Aaron Bailey was used on a few run-designed plays, which included a 2-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman defended putting O’Toole — whose fumble helped the Salukis make it close until the end — in the game with Illinois ahead 42-27 late in the fourth quarter.
“This football team knew (O’Toole) was going to play in this game,” Beckman said. “It was just a matter of when or where. We’re going to tell our team on Friday who is playing. Everybody knew going into Friday night ... who was going to play in this football game.”
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Tim Russell helped send Illinois into halftime with a 25-7 lead after his quick pass to Matt LaCosse for an unexpected two-point conversion try.
The former quarterback at St. Charles East completed the second two-point conversion pass of his career late in the second quarter.
“Once we were in spread I saw that we got the matchup we wanted and just ran it like we practiced,” Russell said. “It was exactly how we drew it up. We didn’t have to improv or anything. I just had to make the toss.”
Beckman said it was in Illinois’ game plan to try for two. But he anticipated it would happen earlier in the game.
“Everybody (on the team) knew we were going to run that fake (Saturday),” Beckman said. “Boise State used to do that all the time, and it was something that you have to defend, and I know (Russell) can do it.”
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V’Angelo Bentley said he watched return highlight tapes Friday night.
Maybe he saw some of Ted Ginn Jr., the former Ohio State standout who starred at Bentley’s alma mater, Glenville High School in Cleveland.
Bentley made a highlight of his own with a 100-yard kickoff return, which was Illinois’ first kickoff return for a touchdown since A.J. Jenkins returned one 96 yards for a touchdown in 2008 against Indiana.
“We practiced all week a deep left kick from (SIU),” Bentley said. “We just stayed patient. When they kicked it to the left, I just prayed to God to help me make a play.”
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Bentley and Miles Osei both lined up to receive punts and kickoffs Saturday. Martize Barr spelled Bentley the kickoff after his touchdown, which came after SIU quarterback Kory Faulkner burned Bentley with a 35-yard touchdown pass.
Both had one impressive punt return, too. Osei had an 18-yard return, and Bentley had a 20-yard return that was later negated to 5 yards because of an Illinois penalty.
Bentley said having Osei, one of the four captains Illinois named before the game, back there with him is a bonus.
“Miles may be one of the most trustworthy people on the team,” Bentley said. “Miles is a great talent, and we have a good relationship back there. We communicate with each other, and we’re both not selfish. On the first punt return I got, Miles said, ‘I want you to get your first one, so you get this one.’ That shows his character.”
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Bailey’s first college touchdown might not have transpired when it did.
The play before the true freshman quarterback from Bolingbrook scored, Southern Illinois safety D.J. Cameron intentionally tripped tight end Tim Clary a few yards from the end zone. No penalty was called, but Clary fell down just shy of the end zone following a 33-yard reception.
Clary is a walk-on who played at Division III Dubuque last season.
“It’s funny looking back with Tim’s career because if you ask the majority of the guys, including myself, you don’t even really know when Tim kind of showed up and was on the team,” Scheelhaase said. “One day he was there, and then all of a sudden we got to spring and used more tight ends and fullbacks, and he started making plays.”
Clary served as Illinois’ fullback when Ferguson had a 34-yard run, the team’s longest of the game. Though Clary played sparingly, he helped manufacture some big plays.
“Nate did a great job because he threw hot off of it and got the ball out to Tim,” Cubit said. “Again, I was hoping he would score, too, because that’s a heck of a story for a walk-on.”
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Joe Spencer made his first career start at left guard, with Michael Heitz shifting to right guard in place of injured starter Ted Karras (left ankle).
At times, Illinois rotated in Jake Feldmeyer at center, giving Corey Lewis some plays off at right tackle. The move then bumped center Alex Hill to right guard and Heitz from right guard to right tackle.
While Illinois thrived in throwing the ball, the offense only managed 49 rushing yards. Starter Donovonn Young struggled mightily, gaining 6 yards on eight carries, his second consecutive season opener in which he rushed for less than 10 yards.
“As we’ve said, we’re going to continue to try to make them successful by running schemes that we feel are necessary for them to be successful with,” Beckman said. “It’d be good to get Teddy back, hopefully for next week. We’ve just got to give room for (Ferguson) and (Young). They don’t need a whole bunch of room, (but) we want to run the football better.”
Ferguson said he wasn’t too discouraged about how the offensive line played.
“Despite what it looked like, they did an awesome job,” he said. “They protected the quarterback for the most part. A few of the mistakes were the running backs’ faults, and we’ll get those fixed.”
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Freshman cornerback Darius Mosely went to the locker room late in the third quarter with the Illinois training staff.
He came back midway through the fourth quarter, and Beckman said the O’Fallon native was dealing with cramps.
Linebacker Jonathan Brown and tight end Jon Davis had to receive intravenous fluids at halftime because of the hot weather.
“We can’t have people cramping up,” Beckman said. “We just can’t. We have got to maintain the smarts of being football-conscious.”
Substitutions, mainly on defense, were frequent against the Salukis. And Illinois had 20 players make their college debuts Saturday.
“We have to have players fresh at the end of the football season if we plan on contending in the Big Ten,” Beckman said. “We can’t have players playing 800 snaps and 900 snaps a season. We’re going to have our freshmen in there.”