CHICAGO — A group of unhappy Illinois defenders bunched together in a corner of the postgame interview in the bowels of Soldier Field on Saturday night, listening to Tim Beckman talk.
They knew their play wasn’t good enough on an evening that had Dick Butkus on hand. Not good enough to stop a high-octane Washington offense that was quick with its play calls and equally quick in putting points on the scoreboard after halftime.
“Defensively, we did not slow them down,” Beckman said. “Tackling was probably the major concern in the third and fourth quarter. We’ve got to tackle better when we’re playing a team that’s a Top 20 football team.”
Washington outgained Illinois 615-327 in total offense, with the Huskies picking up 337 of those yards in the second half.
“That’s the thing we’ve addressed with this football team is that we really haven’t come out in the third quarter and played really (well) this year. We’ve worked on it. We’ve practiced running into the locker room and coming out and re-teaching it all, but it’s something we’ve got to get better at doing,” Beckman said.
Jonathan Brown said all the mistakes on defense are correctable. Missed tackles were the main flaw exposed for Illinois, which still had three players finish with double-digit tackle totals in Brown (15), cornerback Eaton Spence (14) and linebacker Mason Monheim (12).
“We’ve just got to work on it every day,” Brown said. “The mind-set of this team is to just come out and work every day. We’re going to work on that as soon as we get another opportunity to.”
Brown said the tempo Washington played at — the Huskies ran 85 plays for the second time this season — didn’t throw off Illinois too much.
“They sped it up, but we were working on it all week in practice,” Brown said. “I think in practice (the scout team) was going faster than (Washington) actually was. It was a lack of execution.”
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Lost for much of the game was the Aaron Bailey watch.
When the true freshman quarterback will enter the game is always a topic of interest. He made his entrance at Soldier Field memorable.
Bailey scored his second touchdown of the season on a 10-yard run off an option read through the left side of the offensive line to cut Washington’s lead to 31-24 with 9 minutes, 10 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
“We know what Aaron Bailey can become,” Beckman said. “We know that Aaron Bailey has got some potential to be somebody special.”
The touchdown re-energized the crowd and gave Illinois hope late in the game. Nathan Scheelhaase was glad to see Bailey convert on the fourth-down play.
“That was a huge situation, a crucial moment in the game,” Scheelhaase said. “He stepped up to the plate. That was great to see. It was a walk-in (touchdown) for him, so I think he’s probably feeling better about how those guys blocked up front. Being in that moment, that’s real good for a freshman.”
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Even Ryan Lankford was impressed.
One play after Washington took a 31-10 lead, Scheelhaase uncorked a deep pass to Lankford, who hauled it in for a 72-yard touchdown reception late in the third quarter.
“I was thinking, ‘How did he throw it that far?’ ” Lankford said. “I remember I came out of my break, and I was looking up in the air, and the ball just looked like it was taking off. I just had to put the track shoes on, run it down and go get it.”
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian took note of the longest touchdown pass Illinois has had this season.
“I thought our defense was playing really well,” Sarkisian said. “I felt like maybe we had a chance to put them away, and they fought back.”
Lankford, who had his second 100-yard receiving game of the season, classified the first half as more disappointing than frustrating.
“We know we can make plays,” Lankford said. “We left points on the field. Especially as a receiving corps, we didn’t get open when we needed to get open, and we didn’t catch the ball at times we needed to catch the ball. The good thing is it’s all things that can be fixed.”
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Scheelhaase had his worst game of the season throwing the ball, only completing 9 of 25 for 156 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He was sacked four times, too, all in the first half.
Since Washington dropped so many defenders into coverage during the first half, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit relied on Scheelhaase making plays with his feet in the second half.
Scheelhaase’s three positive runs played a role in Illinois cutting the deficit to 17-10 with 9:14 left in the third quarter after Scheelhaase rushed for his first touchdown of the season.
“It was something that we thought would be there,” Scheelhaase said. “Just the way that they were really backing off and the way those defensive ends were rushing early in the game, that’s something that with a quarterback that’s athletic, you shouldn’t be able to get away with it all game. We took advantage of that. The coaches saw that and did a good job, especially on that first drive.”
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Miles Osei is a full-time receiver. For one play Saturday, he showed he wasn’t done with his days as a quarterback.
The left-handed-throwing Osei hit Matt LaCosse on a 35-yard pass that set up Bailey’s touchdown run in the fourth quarter. It came off a double-reverse, which saw Bailey lined up out of the shotgun in his first play of the game.
“It was enjoyable just to see a wide-open guy and connect with him,” Osei said. “I just had to get it to him anyway, anyhow. That was like a lob, but just get it to him and let him go to work.”
The pass from Osei was a wrinkle Cubit put in the week leading up to Saturday’s game.
“We drew it up on the board on Monday,” Cubit said. “We just go and we run it. You trust the kids. It didn’t work exactly like that during practice, but you always say, that may happen.”
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Illinois dominated time of possession in the first half, particularly in the first quarter.
Washington ended up winning that category, holding onto the ball for 31 minutes, 36 seconds compared with 28:24 for Illinois, but Illinois held the ball for 11:35 in the first quarter.
“We really didn’t do anything,” Cubit said of the offense early. “We had our opportunities. Our defense gave us a couple opportunities. It was like we were a really young football team in the first half.”
Cubit liked what he saw out of the offense after halftime but knows the consistency that was lacking Saturday needs to emerge.
“I thought they played much better in the second half, but still, it’s not good enough,” Cubit said. “Like I always tell the offense, we’ve got to score one more point than they do. We didn’t do it. I’m disappointed that we lost, but I’m certainly not discouraged.”
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Butkus was on the Soldier Field sidelines 90 minutes before the game. He joined pregame festivities at midfield by taking part in the coin toss. Illinois recognized several former players throughout the game, and Beckman was pleased with playing at Soldier Field, even though it drops his record to 0-3 as a head coach at NFL stadiums.
“It was a pleasure playing here,” Beckman said. “It was an experience for our football players that they will always remember. I think it’s a great idea for us being here in Chicago, and the fan support was excellent.”
Osei described the atmosphere Saturday as “awesome.”
“It got super loud,” Osei said. “It was one of the loudest stadiums I’ve played in, even though it wasn’t full. I had a whole bunch of family and friends out here, so it was cool to see that.”
Scheelhaase said he and Osei took a walk Saturday afternoon to soak in the environment.
“It was exciting to see the fans happy and ready for the game,” Scheelhaase said. “Any time we come up here, it’s great for those guys that are from this area getting a whole bunch of family. Tickets were crazy this week. Each guy gets four tickets, and it was probably the craziest week we had with guys getting their families there, but that’s what it’s all about.”