Tim Beckman’s Illini pulled off a difficult act Saturday: Favored by 24.5 points, they played like underdogs. They threw caution to the wind.
In the wild first 30 minutes, well before Nathan Scheelhaase was removed from punishing Miami (Ohio), the Illini:
— Stretched Bill Cubit’s playbook with reverses, screens, deep shots and a two-point conversion from a variety of formations that varied from three tight ends to four wideouts.
— Accounted for 394 of their 601 yards before the band came out. It was the third-most pre-intermission yards in UI history as Scheelhaase threw for five TDs. Punter Justin DuVernois could have stayed home (he spent all day on the bench).
— Employed seldom-used tight ends for four touchdowns, including a pair by junior Matt LaCosse ... this by a team that had three TE touchdown catches in 2012 and four in 2011.
— Recovered a surprising onside kickoff (LaCosse) to help expand a 15-0 lead to 22-0.
— Unleashed redshirt sophomore Josh Ferguson for all manner of eye-popping bursts and receptions, changing the UI’s ground-eating 1-2 punch from Young-Ferguson to Ferguson-Young, and bringing this Beckman response after his 15-yard TD reception: “Wow!”
All in the first half of a 50-14 result.
So the honored dads and the reunion teams (’53 and ’63) in the announced crowd of 46,890 were able to relax with the game in the bag. It was 36-0 at the break and 43-0 when Scheelhaase was pulled from the game.
Seeing (Big) Red
What does it mean? Can the Illini successfully carry Cubit’s free-wheeling offense from Memorial Stadium (against a winless foe) to the withering environment of Nebraska?
The Illini, remember, still have a 14-game Big Ten losing streak. Against teams like Nebraska, they’ve often required the tight ends to stay in and block against overpowering pass rushers. Scheelhaase completed 74 percent of his passes against SIU and Cincinnati but, with Washington crashing through, he was 9 for 25 in the loss at Soldier Field. The tight ends had just two catches for 18 yards in that one.
“Our tight ends were more free (Saturday),” said Scheelhaase after his 19-for-24 performance. “We knew Miami would not be a big pressuring team. This gave our guys (LaCosse, Evan Wilson and Jon Davis) more of a chance to get out.”
They were, in most cases, wide open. Wilson’s leaping catch deep in the end zone was particularly impressive, Beckman saying: “Thank goodness he’s 6-7. It was a great day for the tight ends.”
It’s safe to say the Illini never had four tight ends catch TD passes in a half. Just another case of Cubit and Scheelhaase taking what the defense gives, which is the plan every Saturday.
“Our plan was to put the pedal to the metal,” Scheelhaase said. “We opened our playbook. The guys really stepped up.”
Said Cubit: “I told Nathan that I wanted him to be a pro-style quarterback. He did the job. He got us in good plays, and we kept them off balance.
“The tight ends understand the checks (at the line) and know how to react. They’re smart kids. As for the running back position, it takes two, and we’ll continue to alternate them.”
Not half bad
Defensive concerns remain.
Even with the front four’s best NFL prospect ailing (Teko Powell, foot), up-front subs started filtering in early. Coordinator Tim Banks said “keeping them fresh” was the main objective, but it also appeared that the staff wants to see more of inexperienced youths like Jarrod Clements, Robbie Bain and Kenny Nelson.
Illinois lacks an adequate pass rush and didn’t have a sack all day. That said, the run-oriented RedHawks didn’t complete a pass until midway in the second quarter and only had two when the score reached 43-0.
The RedHawks put marches back-to-back for their scores, boosting their production to 250 yards (more than 100 above their dismal average). Illinois was slow to react to some of the QB-keeper plays and allowed receivers to roam free on the sidelines on several occasions.
It should be noted — don’t take this as a complaint — that the first Miami TD was of a highly questionable nature. Rokeem Williams’ fourth-down reception was immediately knocked away by Jaylen Dunlap in the end zone, and the review booth supported the on-field call of a TD. However, a veteran official reminded that this would have been considered an incomplete pass on the 100-yard field, and not a fumble, and therefore shouldn’t have been a touchdown.
No matter. The Illini left the field already pondering the trip to Nebraska and a much larger stage on which to prove themselves. If this was considered hopeless at one point, it no longer is.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.