Cincinnati passing attack too much for Illinois

CINCINNATI – It wasn’t hyped as David vs. Goliath or even a Cinderella story. But the underachieving Illinois football team truly thought it had a shot of playing spoiler to season-long surprise No. 5 Cincinnati.

However, there wasn’t really any romance at all at Nippert Field on Black Friday, as the Illini were handed their eighth defeat of the season by the undefeated Bearcats, 49-36.

“Unfortunately, every game has to have a loser,” Illini quarterback Juice Williams said. “Unfortunately, most of our games, it’s been us.”

As they’d in their previous four games, the Illini came out firing and scored first, as Williams engineered an 87-yard touchdown drive to open the scoring. Williams was 21 of 34 for 282 yards and three touchdowns through the air on the day as he passed the 10,000-yard career total offense mark. The senior added 67 yards and a score on the ground as well.

But just like in previous games, the Illini momentum was short-lived, as the Bearcats’ Mardy Gilyard returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 7-7.

The Illini’s kickoff coverage was porous all day, allowing the Bearcats to win the field position battle and start every first half drive at their own 41-yard line or beyond.

“We knew going in that (Gilyard’s) a great kick returner,” Illini head coach Ron Zook. “We didn’t get off a few blocks, and that’s what’s been pretty frustrating to me. We’ve been pretty good all year long and we didn’t do what we had to do.”

Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike then threw for three of his career-high six touchdowns as his team took a 28-7 lead early in the second quarter and a blowout seemed imminent.

Williams then threw for a touchdown and Derek Dimke converted on a 39-yard field goal, his first of three, and the Illini pulled to within 28-17.

But Illinois never pulled any closer as Gilyard added to a career day by subsequently catching an 11-yard touchdown about four minutes before the break, and it was 35-20 at the half. Gilyard had seven catches for 102 yards. Bearcat tight end Ben Guidugli had seven grabs for 149 yards and two touchdowns.

The Illini had a chance to pull within a touchdown on the first drive of the second half, but Williams and a wide-open Chris Duvalt misconnected on a long pass that would have almost assuredly been a 79-yard touchdown, with no defenders within five yards of the play.

“I thought it was going to go more outside than it did, and I just lost concentration on it,” said Duvalt, who had six receptions for 94 yards, both career highs. “It just slipped out of my hands … I was really disappointed with myself on that one.”

The Illini mustered 16 more points, but the Cincinnati passing attack, which accounted for 399 of the Bearcat’s 420 yards, was just too good.

“We were going to throw the ball all over the park today,” Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said. “It was the game plan all week.”

While Cincinnati moves on with its national championship and BCS dreams, the Illini are left asking the same questions.

“When they go back and watch the tape, they’re going to realize that we had our opportunities, and we just didn’t take advantage of them,” Zook said. “We had some key mistakes, and when you’re playing a team like that, you can’t do that.”