CHICAGO — As losers go, this wasn’t a match for Texas A&M’s effort against Alabama on Saturday.
But Tim Beckman’s Illini kept 47,312 customers in their seats, rallying within a touchdown of Washington until the last five minutes when a Huskies field goal sealed their fate, 34-24.
“Overall, this was a pleasant experience, a great idea to play at Soldier Field,” Beckman said. “The fans got really loud in the fourth quarter.”
But another siege of the third-quarter doldrums put Illinois too far behind, the 19th-ranked Huskies knocking the Illini on their heels and building a 31-10 lead with three crunching drives after halftime.
Most football games are decided after the second-half kickoff, and last week’s win against Cincinnati still stands as the only time in 12 games that Illinois has won the second half.
No, the Huskies didn’t wear down the Illini. Nor was it their no-huddle system. They were just markedly superior, and once they eliminated their first-half mistakes — two lost fumbles and 84 yards in penalties — they outblocked and outflanked the Illini with impunity. With Bishop Sankey rushing for 208 yards and Keith Price throwing for 342, the Huskies reeled off the most yards (615) against Illinois since the 67-65 triple-overtime loss to Michigan in 2010.
“We haven’t played well in the third quarter all year,” Beckman said. “Defensively, it boils down to not tackling.”
It’s true, the Illini didn’t tackle well. But that’s what usually happens when the athleticism favors one side over another. Beckman and coordinator Tim Banks assured that they’ll “return to fundamentals” in the upcoming week off, but it is likely to remain a weakness when October brings on eight Big Ten opponents.
Adjust in time
Washington wasn’t the only one to solve the defensive puzzle at halftime. Coordinator Bill Cubit had some tricks up his sleeve, electing to release Nathan Scheelhaase on draw plays to confound the Huskies’ strong outside pass rush.
Trailing 17-3, Scheelhaase ran draws for 14, 11 and 6 yards to shake them up, and ran the last 2 yards to score. Two possessions later, Scheelhaase threw a high-arching rainbow to Ryan Lankford for a 72-yard score, and the Illini increased the excitement early in the fourth quarter with a southpaw throw by former quarterback Miles Osei to Matt LaCosse for 35 yards. Freshman Aaron Bailey bolted the last 10 yards on fourth down.
This was one of the more stunning bursts — a slash off left tackle — for a running game that continues to be mediocre (136 yards in 36 trips) on halfback rushes inside the tackles.
The Illini nearly completed their second straight game without a turnover when Scheelhaase’s long, off-balance heave was intercepted in the last four minutes. Severely harassed in the first half and sacked four times, he missed one certain TD when a wide-open Steve Hull could only get his fingertips on the overthrow.
Not too shabby
In the final analysis, Cubit’s offense continues to carry Illini hopes for the future. Of 11 opportunities Saturday, not counting a one-play possession before halftime, Illinois entered Washington territory seven times.
Trouble is, on the first four, the production amounted to three points. The Hull miss was followed by a sack, the second invasion ended in a missed field goal, the third pulled Illinois within 10-3, and the fourth died quickly after the Huskies fumbled on their own 40.
Careening off the ropes and down for a 9-count in that disastrous third quarter, Illinois rallied when some UI fans were beginning to check the exits. The QB draws interrupted Washington’s momentum, and it gave the Illini something to build upon ... not just in the late stages Saturday but in the remaining games.
“We still have a lot of heart, a big change from years past,” said No. 44, tackle Austin Teitsma. “We came out healthy, and we can use the week off. This was a great experience. I didn’t know if our fan base would be the same in Chicago, and it was. They were hard-core.”
As losses go, this was one of the better ones. The turnout was better than expected, and the rally was impressive ... the Illini getting back within 10 in a game that saw Washington favored by exactly that number.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.