Illini Tame Salukis in Opener, 42-34
With an ominous forecast for the Illini's first game of the year - heat index of about 104 degrees, with field temperature recorded at 108 degrees - the kickoff was set with overcast skies and a comfortable temperature that increased rapidly. In the opening play for the starting senior quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase completed a 52-yard pass to fellow senior Ryan Lankford.
"We knew that first play all week, you know `bomb it up,'" Lankford said. "Just take off run and catch the ball. It worked out for me, and unfortunately a couple plays later I dropped the ball for a touchdown, definitely won't be able to sleep well tonight. Definitely the first play had a lot of hype and gave the team a lot of energy going early."
Scheelhaase's bomb to Lankford helped set up a 33-yard Taylor Zalewski field goal four minutes into the first quarter to put the Illini up 3-0 to start the game. Later in the first quarter, the Salukis found the end zone first with a touchdown, a 1-yard run after a 39-yard pass play, to put them up 7-3 midway through the first quarter.
"We gave up some big plays and we turned the football over," head coach Tim Beckman said. "You can't turn the football over in any game, regardless of who you're playing and expect to be successful. Penalties, delay of game, we cannot have. So little things like that, I don't know if it's a maturity fault, but it's something we have to make sure that we don't have."
Illinois gained some momentum moving through the second quarter, and Illinois scored to make it 10-7 on a 53-yard catch and run by Josh Ferguson with 9:31 left before halftime.
Then on SIU's next possession the Illini forced a fumble on the Salukis first play and came away with the recovery. Setting the stage, the Scheelhaase-to-Lankford combo took off again with a 28-yard pass to set up Donovonn Young for a 2-yard touchdown run to put Illinois up 17-7.
Late in the half, the Illini were back up on their own 6-yard line and preceded to march 94-yards for a touchdown, capped by an 11-yard touchdown pass from Scheelhaase to Jon Davis to give the Illini a 25-7 lead at halftime. It closed a stellar first half for Scheelhaase who completed 22-of-28 passes for 340 yards in the first 30 minutes of play.
After the nearly flawless first half, Scheelhaase's only interception of the day went to D.J. Cameron for a 27-yard Saluki return, with a tackle saved by Lankford, but the Salukis scored three plays later to bring them up 25-14.
Illinois tried to get their running game going on their next drive and Ferguson came through with a 34-yard rush that eventually led to, freshman quarterback Aaron Bailey's first collegiate touchdown, a 2-yard plunge, to put the Illini back up 18 points.
Following an SIU field goal, the Illini got a spark from V'Angelo Bentley's 100-yard kick return which tied a school record and put Illinois up 39-17. It was the first kick return for a touchdown for an Illini since A.J. Jenkins against Indiana in 2008.
"V'Angelo had a great return," Beckman said. "It's something they've been working really hard on. It really gave us a different look. We're working hard in making our special teams as good as our offense as far as the game goes. Give the players credit for returning kickoffs."
The stadium started emptying after this point due to the Illinois lead and the heat, and slowly more fans faded out as the game was coming to a close; although, the seats under the balconies and in the shade were more occupied. Southern had a burst of energy to wind down the game in the final four minutes, proving they weren't going to go down without a fight, getting within one score and having a chance to tie the game in the final minutes. But after the defense held, Illinois took a knee to finish off the game to come away with the `W,' and the first win in Illinois' last nine games.
"It's a `W,'" Beckman said. "Play it like it's a W, learn from it. Take it one game at a time. This team needs to learn how to win and learn how to feel that and that's what I told them in the locker room. We're here to win, we're here to score points, we need to do what we need to do to be successful. We're here to win football games."
There's no doubt that Illinois had its struggles today, but they will continue to improve as the season progresses.
"I was very proud of the way the team fought," Beckman said. "We're going to make strides and learn from exactly what happened at the end of the football game, but I'm proud of this football team, I'm proud of the senior leadership. I just think that this team, we're still very, very young. We are a young football team so we're going to learn from it, but again I cannot say enough about the leadership that this football team has given."
"I feel like our team performed well in general," Scheelhaase said. "It's going to be a fight every time, we want to go out and grind for every win and fight for every win and I think that's what's great about today, I would much rather have a dogfight that was a four quarter battle than one that was over before the second half started. I love being out there with these guys for 60 minutes and we're going to give the 60 minutes of everything we've got."
Directing new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's pass-heavy game plan, Scheelhaase threw for a career-best 416 yards and finished 28-of-36 with two touchdowns and one interception. Beckman was just as impressed as the rest of the stadium in his quarterback's starting performance this year.
"I thought he did a tremendous job at reading the defense," Beckman said of Scheelhaase. "I thought he did a tremendous job putting our players in position, this offense, you don't understand how much these quarterbacks are involved in making things run, how much work they put in. Our coaches put in 100 hours a week, so do the quarterbacks and so does this football team. Nathan did a great job of putting our team where they needed to be to be successful."
Illinois' quarterback was modest in is performance, and is on board for being all business getting ready for next week's game.
"I think we'll all put it behind us and start preparing for this next team, because they're totally different than what we saw this week," Scheelhaase said. "This week's team, SIU, is definitely a different defense than we may see all year, great to prepare against them, great to try and pick up what they're bringing at us. I'll totally forget about it later on tonight, enjoy the win with my family be back to square one tomorrow preparing for Cincinnati."
Illinois hosts Cincinnati on Saturday, with another 11 a.m. start time.