Loren Tate: Wow!
Apologies for all the doubts you expressed about Nathan Scheelhaase will be accepted at the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics.
Tim Beckman will graciously forgive critics who questioned his coaching acumen.
And those of us who considered Illinois more than an eight-point underdog would like the crow served on rye bread ... with Dijon mustard.
What we saw at a less-than-boiling Memorial Stadium on Saturday was a 45-17 stunner, an upset of Cincinnati that assistant coach Alex Golesh earlier convinced me could be accomplished ... though questions clouded my mind after the Bearcats routed Purdue 42-7.
Credit Bill Cubit and a 9-for-15 success rate on third down. Oh, he wasn’t alone out there. But he had a magic touch in the play-calling box Saturday. He set the tone with sleight-of-hand trickeration, the likes of which Illinoisans haven’t witnessed in years. Scheelhaase used 11 receivers in a four-TD effort that featured no sacks, no interceptions, no drops and no lost fumbles, an efficiency report matching any you’ll ever see.
Cincinnati posed a serious aerial threat, but Illinois hogged the ball, possessing it for 13 more minutes than the visitors. Illinois scored so relentlessly that the Bearcats ultimately crumbled, running the ball into the line in the final two minutes.
Everyone knows the turning point. Tommy Tuberville’s travelers had seemingly rallied within 21-17 when the refs ruled QB Munchie Legaux scored from the 1-yard line. But a TV review showed a fumble inches from the goal line, and the recovery by Chris Moore in the end zone was not allowed. Long ago, a rule was installed to make it illegal for runners to fumble into the end zone, unless they recover it themselves. The ball was dead where Legaux dropped it on fourth down.
Illinois took over on the 1-foot line and broke the Bearcats’ back with a 99-yard TD march.
Against Southern Illinois a week earlier, the Illini built a 22-point lead and took their foot off the accelerator. Not Saturday. With most of the 43,031 hanging around, they blanked Cincinnati 17-0 in the fourth quarter. That ended a stretch of 10 games in which they had failed to outscore the opponent in the second half.
The outcome creates a new excitement and changes the nature of expectations surrounding the upcoming showdown against Washington (idle this weekend) in Chicago. Cincinnati, after all, was receiving votes for the Top 25, and the Washington Huskies are lodged in that elite group after devouring Boise State. If nothing else, this wipeout of the program formerly headed by UI athletic director Mike Thomas demonstrates what is possible ... and sales in Chicago should be boosted by curious fans wondering if these Illini are for real.
On the offensive
Cubit was too consistently successful with his calls to think he was merely lucky. He so bamboozled the Bearcats that they were back on their heels all day.
“Bill just called 500 yards (522) in offense,” Beckman said. “As an offensive mind, he’s as outstanding as any I’ve been around or played against.”
Count the ways:
(1) On the first play, as if to set the stage, he lined up most of the team to the left with the backs behind the center. The weird formation didn’t work, but it indicated that he was feeling his oats.
(2) On the second series, Josh Ferguson sprang out of a slot and slipped deep for a perfectly thrown 48-yard TD. Illinois up 7-0.
(3) Just after the quarter turn, faking fooled everybody as Ryan Lankford carried a reverse around left end, drew key blocks from Steve Hull and Ted Karras, and cut back for a 29-yard jaunt. Illinois up 14-0.
(4) The Bearcats were becoming frazzled, and the next exotics caught them with their pants at their ankles. To set it up, Scheelhaase hit four passes to the 31, then used two runs for 8 yards. On third and 2, Illinois bunched three backs behind the quarterback in a power formation, and tight end Evan Wilson slipped unnoticed into the end zone while the Bearcats bit on the fake. Wilson’s 23-yard reception made it 21-0.
On the block
Down by three TDs, it became an uphill climb for the favored visitors. They threw a scare into the band-day assemblage, but Cubit still had tricks up his sleeve ... especially on the 99-yard drive that featured another 12-yard reverse by Lankford, a tricky 24-yard run by receiver Martize Barr and a 22-yard TD pass to Hull on a crossing pattern from right to the left corner.
This rundown of well-conceived plays wouldn’t have been possible without effective protection by A.J. Ricker’s line, which remained intact — from left, Simon Cvijanovic, Michael Heitz, Alex Hill, Karras and Corey Lewis — until the result was assured. A late-column credit doesn’t do nearly enough in this regard and it must be emphasized: Scheelhaase wouldn’t get this kind of result (26 of 37 for 312 yards) unless the line provided the opportunity.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.