Illini topple Broncos in first win of Beckman era

_Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the version printed in Tuesday’s paper._

Tim Beckman walked into the room for his postgame press conference proudly holding the game ball athletic director Mike Thomas and the Illinois football team presented him after Saturday’s 24-7 victory against Western Michigan. However, he didn’t have plans to accept it, saying that this was the “team’s game ball,” with plans to frame it as the first victory of the new era.

“All the guys in the locker room love him and we really feel like he’s bringing in a new era,” defensive end Michael Buchanan said. “We wanted to get (the win) for him.”

It only took four plays for the Illini’s new spread offense to strike. Wide receiver Ryan Lankford turned a pass from quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase into a 64-yard touchdown to give Illinois the early lead.

It was the perfect start to Saturday’s game in front of a crowd of 43,441 at Memorial Stadium, and co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said it worked exactly how Illinois planned it.

The Illini saw the Broncos tendency to bring their safeties up, and Beatty said he knew “last Tuesday or Wednesday” the play would work.

The largest cause for concern for the Illini came in the third quarter.

Leading 17-0 and poised to extend its lead, Scheelhaase had his pass, which was intended for receiver Spencer Harris, intercepted in the end zone. It proved to be costly not only because it thwarted the Illini’s scoring chance, but Scheelhaase would leave the game with an injury to his left ankle. Scheelhaase finished the game 11-for-18 with 126 yards and a touchdown and added a rushing touchdown. Backup quarterback Reilly O’Toole came into the game and was unable to effectively move the Illini offense down the field, completing two of his three passing attempts for seven yards.

Beckman said the Illini will continue to evaluate Scheelhaase and harped on his quarterback’s competitiveness in wanting to get back into the game. However, Beckman wasn’t sure if he would’ve been able to return had the score dictated he needed too.

So the Illini defense, the staple of last year’s team, took it upon themselves to ensure that the Illini came away with a victory. Buchanan said the Illini were fired up on the sideline, saying, “We got to make a play, we got to make a play.”

“We knew our leader was down and we knew the defensive had to step up and make a play,” Buchanan said.

That man was star Ashante Williams. With Western Michigan driving down the field, the lead narrowed to 17-7, Williams saw a play he’d seen all week long in practice. Once he recognized the routes, he baited Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder’s throw for an easy interception that he returned 60 yards for a touchdown, all but sealing the Illinois victory.

“The momentum kind of swung to our side after that pick,” said Beckman, who has praised Williams’ work ethic. “It did not surprise me when he made that play.”

Beckman wanted to emphasize takeaways since the Illini didn’t think they garnered enough last year, and cornerback Terry Hawthorne said the team set the goal of eight — the same number they’d been getting in practice. They didn’t get eight, but the four turnovers, including three interceptions of Carder, proved to be enough. Carder struggled all game long with the Illini pass rush, especially from defensive linemen Akeem Spence and Buchanan, who had a sack and an interception.

But the Illini players and coaches didn’t seem satisfied with its defense; they all mentioned the areas the team could’ve improve on or mistakes the team made.

“I guess I’m a perfectionist. I’ll give them a B,” Beckman said.

That B-graded defense held Carder to 24-of-39 for 214 yards, sacking him twice after hearing all week about his seven touchdown outburst against Beckman’s Toledo team last year.

For now, Beckman can celebrate his first victory with the team during its Sunday victory meal of steaks, cake and shrimp. The new era couldn’t be off to a better start record-wise.

“When we win, we’re going to celebrate,” Beckman said. “They’ll be pampered because I want them to understand that winning is, not necessarily a fragile thing, but it’s something you’ve got to cherish.”

_Jamal can be reached at [email protected] and @JamalCollier._