CHAMPAIGN — Nebraska never came up in Tim Beckman’s eight-minute postgame news conference.
Make no mistake, though.
The Cornhuskers are now the main focus for Illinois. Along with trying to find a way to end its 14-game Big Ten losing streak.
After pushing aside a bad Miami (Ohio) team 50-14 on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium, the Illini now need to find three wins against conference foes. Three more wins and a bowl appearance is locked up. Illinois has eight games to accomplish the task. Starting next Saturday. In Lincoln. Amid a sellout crowd. And a raucous atmosphere.
“It’s a chance for us to slide in there and make some noise,” tight end Evan Wilson said. “We have a great opponent coming up. We’ll gauge how we feel after that one, but we’re excited. We’re excited as a team to see how good we really are.”
The most impressive home crowd of the season — 46,890 in paid attendance Saturday — now holds its collective breath. The gauntlet of the Big Ten season is upon Illinois.
“We haven’t played a Big Ten opponent yet, so we’ll sure as heck see,” Beckman said when asked if Illinois is more prepared for Big Ten play this year compared with last year. “Now the real time comes. Conference play is what you work for and prepare for every year.”
Preparing for the trip to another Memorial Stadium where Nathan Scheelhaase and his teammates will see a whole bunch of red awaits Illinois.
“It will be wild,” Scheelhaase said. “I can remember it from when I visited there (in high school). I know I’ll definitely be excited, but really, you got to remember that at the end of the day, it’s a 100-yard field just like it is every day we’re out at practice.”
The highlights weren’t limited to the Illini offense. Illinois gave up its fewest yards of the season (250), albeit against an anemic Miami (Ohio) offense. Nebraska and quarterback Taylor Martinez will present a much tougher test.
“These previous games are important, but it’s all about the Big Ten,” sophomore linebacker Mason Monheim said. “We know that we’re a (darn) good team. I want to get my first win in the Big Ten under my belt.”
Can the trickery, the spin moves from Josh Ferguson and the deep passes Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit calls continue to work against teams of equal or superior talent? Like the one Illinois will square off against next Saturday.
“It’s a tribute to Coach Cubit,” Ferguson said. “He puts us all in the best positions.”
If Scheelhaase, Ferguson (148 yards of total offense) and the rest of the offense is able to produce against Nebraska like it did against the RedHawks, watch out. Scheelhaase (19 of 24, 278 yards) established a career high for touchdown passes in a game with five and completed passes to 10 different receivers.
“He continues doing that, he’ll make somebody look pretty good,” Cubit said. “Maybe me.”
Cubit smiled after that last point. Smiles were in full effect from Illinois and its faithful after Saturday’s rout, the biggest margin of victory against an FBS team since Illinois defeated Indiana 55-13 on Oct. 18, 2008.
They won’t last long. Not with Nebraska looming on the schedule.
“I think we’re going to prepare great and be ready to go,” right tackle Corey Lewis said. “There’s been a lot of doubt toward the team the whole year. Rightfully so. We haven’t won a Big Ten game in a long time. This will really give us a challenge to see where we’re really at.”
What it means
Illinois is halfway toward bowl eligibility. Before October. Before you start making late-December travel plans to places like Detroit, Houston or Tempe, Ariz., take a deep breath. Tim Beckman & Co. haven’t had to go up against any Big Ten teams yet. But the confidence and optimism surrounding the Illinois program is nowhere near what it was like at this time last year. Not even close.
Bill Cubit opened up his vast playbook again. A slant one play. A double-reverse the next. With the option of Miles Osei throwing the ball. Who knows what Illinois will run whenever Nathan Scheelhaase, Aaron Bailey or Reilly O’Toole takes a snap? Whatever Illinois dialed up on offense against an overmatched RedHawks defense seemed to work. Time and time again. Plus, the defense put together a stout effort.
The first road game of the season. Bo Pelini and his embattled Cornhuskers were able to relax and watch Illinois take Miami (Ohio) to the woodshed Saturday. Who knows if a bye week will help ease tensions between Nebraska’s coach and its fan base? No secret recordings have shown up in the last 10 days, though. Good start. Which is how the first month of the season for Illinois can be characterized. Now Illinois will try for its first win in Lincoln since ... 1924. Granted, Illinois has only played there twice in the last 90 years. But even Red Grange would be excited if he could witness the offensive aptitude Illinois is displaying this year.
— Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois
— Josh Ferguson, Illinois
— Matt LaCosse, Illinois