Offense struggles as Buckeyes hand Illini 1st loss, 17-7

A failed fourth-down pass sealed the fate of the Illinois football team, which dropped its first game of the season Saturday to an Ohio State squad that entered just 3-3. It was a fitting ending, though, as the Illini had failed to execute offensively for much of the day.

With the Illini (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) trailing 17-7 and just more than a minute left on the clock, the Illini faced a fourth down and two to go from the Buckeyes’ 17-yard line. Despite being down two scores, head coach Ron Zook and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino opted to go for the first down and the touchdown, rather than kicking the field goal and attempting an onside kick.

As Scheelhaase took the snap, he immediately turned and fired toward the left sideline and receiver A.J. Jenkins, who, did not turn around to catch the ball, instead running into the endzone as the ball fell harmlessly behind him.

“I just thought we had a play that was going to be an easy first down and give us a chance to score quick,” offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “I told Coach Zook I thought we could get it easy, and we just didn’t hitch up when we should have. It should have been an easy first down, we just didn’t execute it.”

Illinois converted just five of 12 third down tries, three of which came on their only scoring drive, and committed three costly turnovers.

“We’ve been pretty good at not turning the ball over,” Zook said. “And I think probably the turnovers was (what led to) the end result there.”

Illinois’ defense, meanwhile, struggled to contain the Ohio State (4-3, 1-2) rushing attack, which was boosted by the return of suspended senior Dan Herron. The Illini defense entered giving up just under 80 yards per game on the ground, but were gashed early and often to the tune of 211 yards on 51 carries.

While the Illini expected a heavy rushing attack, defensive end Whitney Mercilus said it was a lack of fundamentals that led to the breakdown.

“The thing is, it was just tackling that shot us in the foot, and they gained yardage on us,” Mercilus said. “We just have to try to wrap up and tackle better, and we just have to practice that more during the week.”

The rushing success was even more surprising considering the almost complete lack of a passing game by the Buckeyes.

Quarterback Braxton Miller completed just one of four passes, for 17 yards, and was sacked four times. However, his one pass was a touchdown to tight end Jake Stoneburner that made the score 17-0 early in the fourth quarter.

Scheelhaase and the Illini offense responded with a score of their own, though, on a three-yard touchdown catch by tight end Evan Wilson. After a defensive three and out, the Illini looked as though they may still have life yet. But Scheelhaase threw his second interception of the day on the drive’s first play.

The quarterback ended the day with 20 completions in 34 attempts for 169 yards and a touchdown against two interceptions. He also led the team in rushing, picking up 49 yards on 16 carries, as the Illini amassed just 116 rushing yards on the day. But it wasn’t the running game that was the problem in Scheelhaase’s mind.

“Honestly, I thought we ran the ball well enough to win,” Scheelhaase said. “I thought if they were gonna stop the run, we’d have to hit some passes, and we did at times, but we didn’t hit enough to win the game.”

After the game, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino took blame for the team’s poor offensive showing.

“We did a lot of things not right today, so that all goes back to me,” Petrino said. “It’s my fault, I didn’t get it done today. If there’s anyone that had a bad day, it was me. I take the blame, and I need to do a better job.”

While Petrino took the blame, he was still surprised at the Illini’s struggles, which included multiple drops by the receiving corps and even some bad snaps to Scheelhaase out of the shot gun formation.

“I don’t understand it, I never would have expected that,” Petrino said. “We’ve been catching the ball good all year. We dropped some crucial third down passes, and you’re not going to beat a team that’s good on defense when you do that. … You can’t have that.”