Illini Show Fight in Loss to No. 3 Buckeyes
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - There's no quit on this year's Illinois football team.
Illinois lost 60-35 to the Buckeyes, but the final score didn't indicate how close the game was late, or the effort put into the game by the Fighting Illini. Illinois posted 420 yards of offense against the Buckeyes in today's game, which is the third straight game and sixth time this season that the Illini have topped the 400-yard mark. The Illini held Ohio State to 4-of-13 third-down conversions on the day, the fewest conversions and worst percentage (30.7 percent) the Buckeyes have registered in a game this season.
The scoreboard didn't show a win against the Buckeyes on Saturday afternoon, but the improvement in the football program has shown this season.
"I thought our players battled till the end," Illinois head coach Tim Beckman said. "However, we came up short. We continued to fight. I'm proud of the way that they competed and I'm proud of the way this coaching staff coached it. We've got two remaining football games and we want these seniors to leave winners. They're working extremely hard."
"I think they've been that way this whole football season and I continue to tell them that," Beckman said about his team's resiliency. "That's why it's so disheartening when they don't get that victory, because they're fighting till the end and there's no question about that. I tell them that I'm proud that they continue to fight, because through adversity good things will come."
The Buckeyes shot out to a 28-0 lead, leaving Illinois scoreless until 7:29 left in the second quarter. Illinois' Tim Kynard broke through the Buckeye line to find quarterback Braxton Miller for the sack and a 15-yard loss with 7:53 left in the second. The sack gave the Illini some positive energy to build on and forced a Buckeye punt, which V'Angelo Bentley fielded at the Illinois 33-yard line and returned 67 yards for a touchdown - thanks to some nifty footwork - to get Illinois on the board, 28-7.
With today's punt return touchdown and his 100-yard kickoff return against Southern Illinois in the season opener, Bentley became the first player in Illinois history to return both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the same season. Entering Saturday, only seven players nationally and one other player in the Big Ten (Marcus Jones, Minnesota) had recorded both a punt return TD and kick return TD.
After Ohio State added another touchdown, the Illini went on a 14-0 run. Nearing the end of the first half, Illinois' Justin Hardee snagged a leaping 23-yard pass by Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Following Hardee's grab, Scheelhaase completed a 19-yard touchdown pass to Steve Hull with 2:25 left in the second quarter - marking Scheelhaase's 50th career touchdown pass. Then on its first drive of the second half, Illinois switched to the run game and drove down the field. Scheelhaase capped the drive by finding Evan Wilson on the back edge of the end zone, bringing Illinois within two touchdowns three minutes into the third quarter, 35-21.
"If I had to give a synopsis of the game, you look at it from a boxing standpoint," Scheelhaase said. "We came out and they knocked us out twice in the first two rounds, and I think any time you deal with that it kind of shakes you up a little bit. I was just so happy with the way we responded. We stood up and we fought till the 15th round. Just to be surrounded by a bunch of players that are willing to do that, to have a group of seniors with that kind of mentality, not only on the field on Saturdays but in anything that we do, I'm honored to be a part of something like that. There's isn't a group of guys I would rather do it with."
Scheelhaase eclipsed 8,000 career passing yards in today's game, with 288 yards. He totaled 334 yards of total offense and needs to average 299 yards of total offense per game over the last two games to become Illinois' career total offense leader.
"I think our offense has done a great job at being resilient and sticking to the game plan and continuing to build confidence throughout the whole game," Hull said. "I think that's something that's really impressive on the coaches' behalf, pressing that to us. Then the players, we actually believe in it. We're giving it everything that we possibly have. We've got guys fighting through injuries, guys fighting through things in life. It's really special to be around them."
Ohio State put up another touchdown and a safety in the third quarter to take a 44-21 lead going into the fourth quarter, but the Illini showed no signs of throwing in the towel against the undefeated Buckeyes. Illinois found the end zone seconds into the fourth with a 5-yard run by Scheelhaase, and a two-point conversion by Miles Osei brought the Illini within 12 points with less than 10 minutes to play in the game.
"The fight I saw in these guys is tremendous," Jonathan Brown said. "We're not going to quit. The situation right now might not be the prettiest, we might not be outright beating guys, but we're going to fight, we're going to give everything we've got, every play, every week."
"It's a harsh reality, but I'm going to focus on the positives," Brown said about his final games at Illinois. "Focus on making sure we win these last two games and give the team a foundation to build on for next season. I feel like we've made a lot of strides. The season's not over yet, we've still got two more games of football left and I'm just going to enjoy the rest of my time here."
Scheelhaase hit Josh Ferguson for a 4-yard touchdown run at the 8:49 mark. And as Ohio State added two touchdowns to close out the game, the Buckeyes won, 60-35. Scheelhaase recorded a 20-yard rush in the third quarter and a 35-yard rush in the fourth quarter, the first two 20-plus yard rushes given up by Ohio State's defense this season.
"I think any time we put on a jersey and wear the emblem on our helmet representing the University, you always have something to play for," Scheelhaase said. "And to be surrounded by the people we're surrounded by each and every day, to look my brothers in the eye and know I want to go to war with them. You always have something to play for, it's never a question about that. Whether a bowl is an option or not, everybody knows they have something to play for, they just have to look to their left and right and realize that there's plenty to play for."