Illinois Smacks Cincinnati, 45-17
Champaign, Ill. - Illinois made a statement Saturday, starting the season with two 40-plus point efforts after taking down Cincinnati 45-17, as six different Illini recorded a touchdown for the day. Illinois' defense shut down Cincinnati from the start, holding the Bearcats to less than 20 points for only the second time in their last 18 games.
Illinois racked up 522 yards of total offense against Cincinnati, showcasing new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's effect on the team. Cincinnati nearly matched the Illini's offensive output with 456 yards, but Illinois converted 9-of-15 third downs while holding Cincinnati to 3-of-13 on third down conversions and 0-of-2 on fourth downs.
"Bill Cubit has always been successful and has always done a great job with our offense," head coach Tim Beckman said. "It's still about him putting our players in position and making plays. We just call the plays, the players are the ones who run the plays. Bill is an outstanding offensive mind, there's no question. That's why I brought him here. He's the best I've been coaching against or been around."
"The beautiful thing is football is all the same," wide receiver Ryan Lankford said about the new playbook. "Of course there's different concepts and different ideas that go down, but coming into another offense, being a senior, understanding different offenses has been easier to make the transition."
Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase - coming off of a stellar 416-yard opening game against Southern Illinois - launched a 48-yard bomb to sophomore Josh Ferguson to give Illinois the first score of the game with 5:45 left in the first quarter.
On the ensuing drive, Cincinnati quarterback Munchie LeGaux's pass was intercepted by redshirt-freshman Taylor Barton, his first career pick, but the Illini couldn't do anything with it. When the teams traded punts, Illinois came out ahead thanks to a 26-yard return by V'Angelo Bentley that gave the Orange and Blue possession near midfield.
A few plays later, Scheelhaase handed off to Lankford on an end-around and good blocking gave Lankford a clear path to the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown and a 14-0 Illinois lead just minutes into the second quarter.
The Illini defense got the ball right back, forcing a three-and-out, and Scheelhaase went back to work, engineering a 10-play, 76-yard drive. He went 5-for-5 on the drive, capping it with a 23-yard scoring strike to a wide-open Evan Wilson, as Illinois blew the game open 21-0 with 7:04 left in the first half.
Illinois' defense was tested during the last minute before the half, and Cincinnati was able to get on the board before halftime with sophomore Max Morrison's 1-yard touchdown reception to finish an exhausting 14-play, 69-yard drive that cut Illinois' lead to 21-7 at the break.
Cincinnati took advantage of a short Illini punt with a 37-yard field goal to cut Illinois' lead to 21-10 within the first five minutes of the third quarter. Then the Bearcats forced a three-and-out by the Illini from UI's 25 yard line, but this time, Justin DuVernois boomed it 53 yards and Cincinnati took over at its own 33.
LeGaux hit Morrison with a 32-yard strike and an unnecessary roughness penalty put the Bearcats on the Illinois four yard line. But the Illini defense stiffened, leading to fourth-and-goal from the one. LeGaux ran left but was met by a slew of defenders. The official on the goal line signaled touchdown, but a long review resulted in the apparent Bearcat touchdown being called back after Illini junior Earnest Thomas caused LeGaux to fumble the ball before the goal line. Because it was fourth down and another Cincinnati player recovered the ball in the end zone, the possession was awarded to Illinois on the 1-yard line.
"If you're going to continue drives, you've got to be successful on third downs," Beckman said. "We practice that, we talk about it. We won third downs today, and we also won the turnover battle today."
Cincinnati quickly matched the Illini to pull within reach at 28-17 shortly before the end of the third quarter thanks to a scoring drive that required only 1:14.
But the Fighting Illini came right back at the Bearcats after Scheelhaase hit Hull with a 23-yard toss and a 22-yard gain by Ferguson pushed Illinois inside the red zone. Taylor Zalewski added a field goal to put the Orange and Blue up 31-17 with 9:57 left in the game.
A truly heartbreaking scene occurred midway through the fourth quarter when the entire Cincinnati bench crowded onto the field around their downed quarterback. Just as LeGaux unleashed a third-down pass that fell incomplete, Illini defensive end Tim Kynard delivered a clean hit that resulted in LeGaux clutching his left leg and he eventually was carted off.
"I saw it immediately," Beckman said. "It was definitely one of those injuries that you've seen on (former NFL quarterback Joe) Theismann, and those types of injuries. I wanted to get out there to him as quickly as I could, and he was in pain, there's no question, but they took care of him and got him off, and hopefully we'll all pray that he's healthy."
After play resumed, Cincinnati's John Lloyd booted a 38-yard punt but Miles Osei found a lane and returned it all the way to the original line of scrimmage for a 38-yard return, Illinois' longest punt return since 2004. On the Illini's second play, Barr made a great over-the-shoulder catch for a 26-yard touchdown strike from Scheelhaase, pushing the margin 38-17. Illinois added a late touchdown on an eight-yard run by Donovonn Young for the final 45-17 score.
"That's something I'm really proud of my guys for," Jonathan Brown said. "They stood up when it mattered. They [Cincinnati] had 400 yards, but I felt as a defense we stood up when it mattered."
The senior linebacker finished with 14 tackles, one tackle for loss and a half-sack, with 10 of his tackles coming before halftime.
"I felt like I played a decent game, still a lot of room for improvement," Brown said. "I'll watch the film tonight and see how we can improve as a defense and how I can improve as a player."
"It was four quarters of football," Beckman said. "The way they prepared from Sunday to this afternoon all the way up to kickoff time, it was a team win. And it was a coaching staff win, nothing to do with me, got everything to do with these players. They believe in what we're doing and I think you can see a little bit of that today. (We've) still got a long ways to go, there's no question about that. But all in all, it was definitely a team effort and I couldn't be more proud."
For the first time in Scheelhaase's career, he threw for more than 300 yards in back-to-back contests. He finished 26-of-37 with 312 yards. In two games, he has 728 yards, six touchdowns and one interception after throwing for 1,361 yards, four TDs and eight interceptions in all of 2012.
"We give a senior that's been here, that understands the game of football, we give him opportunities to utilize his football smarts, which he is very, very intelligent football-wise," Beckman said. "He put us in some great opportunities for some plus plays."
"I think that most great quarterbacks don't have the strongest arms," Cubit said. "I think they're smart, I think they understand where to throw the ball, they understand timing and anticipation. Give me those quarterbacks any day of the week."