UI 50, Miami 14: Notebook
CHAMPAIGN — Nathan Scheelhaase nearly tied Dave Wilson.
In the first half.
But the pass to Ryan Lankford in traffic fell incomplete late in the second quarter.
Regardless, the Illinois quarterback now is tied for second all time for most touchdown passes in a game. Wilson’s record of six touchdown passes in a game — set during his 621-yard output against Ohio State in 1980 — is safe. For now.
Scheelhaase has a right to give grief to Lankford. He won’t, though.
“I had one earlier where I could have made it six, and seven would have been to Lank,” Scheelhaase said. “He’s a playmaker for us, and he’ll come back and be ready to go next week.”
Making plays is what Scheelhaase and the offense did Saturday.
Illinois racked up 601 yards of total offense — even with backup quarterback Aaron Bailey taking a knee on three straight plays to end the game — to top the 600-yard plateau for the first time since 2007.
Scheelhaase was a big reason.
“I talked to him before the game and I said, ‘I want you to be an NFL quarterback (Saturday),’ ” Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “ ‘I want the great feet (and) the accurate throws.’ I feel he did it pretty well.”
Illinois coach Tim Beckman liked what he saw from his fifth-year senior, especially after he struggled against Washington. Scheelhaase helped direct the offense to its third straight 40-plus point game at Memorial Stadium, an accomplishment that has never happened in the 90-year-old stadium. The 161 points Illinois has scored in its first four games is a program record, breaking the 158 points the 1914 team scored in its first four games.
“I can’t say enough about what Nate Scheelhaase has done,” Beckman said. “It’s not just about throwing touchdown passes. It’s about coming in on Mondays and overstudying so he can have the best opportunity to be successful. Nate’s been really buying into this system, and you can see that in the way he’s been playing.”
Said running back Donovonn Young: “He deserves it. He’s been through so much ridicule. He’s always been consistent, not necessarily on the field, but with us, he’s always been the same Nate throughout all the turmoil.”
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The trick plays didn’t come out in full force against the RedHawks. Miles Osei threw away a pass after a double reverse. Reilly O’Toole hit Spencer Harris for an 8-yard gain after a lateral pass from Bailey.
Beckman joked Cubit has three DVDs full of such plays in which he culls information.
“There’s probably a few more than that,” Cubit said with a grin. “The kids have a lot of fun with it. We weren’t as successful this week on them, but that’s one more thing everybody else has to prepare for and keep everybody guessing.”
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Miami coach Don Treadwell wasn’t too surprised with the production because he coached against Cubit the last two seasons in the Mid-American Conference.
“They present a lot of things formationally, schemewise, and then on top of that, they have great athletes — in my opinion — across the board,” Treadwell said. “There are so many weapons. They made big play after big play early in the first half.”
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Josh Ferguson had one of his most productive all-around games during his career at Illinois. Not bad considering he only was in for one play during the second half.
“It was a good feeling, man, to get out there, do your work in the first half and see the young guys go out there and play,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson and Young complement each other. On the field. Off the field, too, with Young more outgoing while Ferguson is a bit reserved.
“I’m a little more talkative (this year), but I don’t waste too much energy talking,” Ferguson said. “I like to put it out in my actions.”
Ferguson finished with 71 rushing yards on eight carries and 77 receiving yards on five catches, including a 15-yard TD reception in which he showcased his dynamic athleticism.
“He’s a guy where you got to get him in certain spots,” Cubit said. “Josh is a guy that you sit there and go, ‘I’ve got to get the ball to him somehow.’ ”
Young added a season-high 80 yards on 11 carries.
“They’re both important pieces of this offense,” Beckman said. “They have to be successful in the Big Ten with those two guys running the ball and then taking it on the perimeter. I’m happy with the way both of them continue to get better and more dynamic.”
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Some wondered how much Illinois would utilize its tight ends this season. Cubit provided the answer Saturday.
Matt LaCosse, Evan Wilson and Jon Davis caught first-half touchdown passes. Needless to say, Illinois tight ends coach Alex Golesh was pleased with the output.
“I asked Coach Golesh ... because he likes his Meatheads (hamburgers), if he was supposed to get extra Meatheads or something with the more touchdowns they scored,” Beckman said. “If he is, he better bring some for the team.”
LaCosse’s 2-yard grab kicked off the scoring and was the first touchdown catch of his career.
“I was really, really tired, so not a lot was going through my head,” LaCosse said. “It was nice to get that burden off your shoulders a little bit and get the first one out of the way.”
He added a 45-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter that extended Illinois’ lead to 36-0.
“The second one was a lot of fun,” LaCosse said. “That’s one that I’ll definitely remember.”
Scheelhaase had his third interception of the season in the first quarter. He missed Wilson two plays earlier on a wide-open seam route near the Miami 15-yard line. But the duo connected for the second touchdown of the game, with Wilson leaping high and keeping his left foot inbounds near the back of the end zone.
“I think it was the left big toe because I got a lot of (turf) pellets in that shoe,” Wilson said with a laugh. “It was a great feeling just with the opportunity for Nate to throw it up there and let me make a play.”
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With Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams out with foot injuries, depth on the defensive line was a worrisome topic for Illinois.
Defensive coordinator Tim Banks used Robbie Bain, Abe Cajuste and Jarrod Clements freely Saturday as backups to starters Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe. Illinois recently switched Clements, a true freshman, from defensive end to defensive tackle. Kenny Nelson and DeJazz Woods were in the game early, too, when starters Tim Kynard and Houston Bates were out.
“I think they’re coming along,” Banks said. “The more snaps they get that we can critique on film, show them what they did well and what they didn’t do well, that’s the only way they can get better. Without looking at the film, my gut is that they competed.”
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Eric Finney made his first start of the season. The junior college transfer, projected to start at the STAR position coming out of spring practices, sustained a knee injury in early August and slowly worked himself back into the lineup.
“It’s good because he’s a multiple defender for us,” Banks said. “He’s athletic enough to be able to play some man but also tough enough to play physical against the run. I’m sure there’s a couple plays he wish he could have back that in his best day he makes the play, but as he continues to get his feet back under him, he’ll continue to get better.”
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LaCosse wasn’t the only Illini to score his first career touchdown Saturday. Running back Devin Church got in on the act with a 12-yard score on his first carry of the game to extend Illinois’ lead to 43-0 in the third quarter.
Most of the Illinois starters on offense were out of the game late in the third quarter, with Beckman’s defensive starters taking a seat on the bench after Miami’s first possession of the fourth quarter.
“It’s about these players getting the opportunity to get in games and play for us because they’re going to have to,” Beckman said. “That’s just part of this program.”
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LaCosse recovered Illinois’ onside kick attempt by Taylor Zalewski in the second quarter. Illinois went on to score two plays after the recovery to extend its lead to 22-0.
“We’ve been talking about it forever,” said Beckman, who credited outside linebackers coach Al Seamonson for wanting to run the play. “We decided that it was there, so we wanted to give it a try.”
LaCosse said Osei was a key contributor on that play.
“I was on the left side, so I necessarily wasn’t even supposed to be in the play,” LaCosse said. “(Osei) saw that everyone was going to have a difficult time grabbing it, so he basically hit it up in the air. Since I’m taller than everyone, I was able to go up and grab it before everyone else.”
Zalewski said Beckman alerted everyone in practice this week that after the second touchdown Illinois scored, the onside kick attempt was coming.
“We practice it every day,” Zalewski said. “It was wide open. Miles got there perfectly; it took a good bounce and we got it.”
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Zalewski missed a 27-yard field goal attempt, and after converting the first 17 extra points this year, watched backup Ryan Frain make the last two extra points Saturday after his miss.
“I picked my head up a little bit, and it came off the inside of my foot,” said Zalewski, who is now 4 of 7 on the season on field goal attempts. “It just went wide left. It was an easy kick. I do it every day in practice. It can’t happen in games. It was a perfect hold and a perfect snap. It just got away from me.”