Illini defense falters in 1st loss of Tim Beckman’s tenure

Illinois missed starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, to be sure. But he doesn’t play defense, and that was the area where the Illini struggled mightily against Arizona State.

The Sun Devils scored touchdowns on four of their six first-half possessions and fumbled the ball away at the Illinois 1-yard line on another, en route to a 45-14 romp over the Illini in the desert on Saturday night.

“Any time you lose a quarterback that has won seven games in back-to-back seasons and has been a proven leader for two years, you’re going to miss someone like that,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said.

But, he said, “That’s not the reason we didn’t cover receivers, missing tackles and throwing interceptions and all that stuff.”

Taylor Kelly completed 18 of 24 passes for 249 yards and a touchdown as Arizona State improved to 2-0 under new coach Todd Graham.

“I want to put a product on the field that’s exciting to watch,” Graham said. “We are exciting to watch, but we’re just beginning.”

Kelly’s backup, Michael Eubank, was 5 of 5 passing for 69 yards and two touchdowns and ran 7 yards for a score.

Chris Coyle matched a school record for tight ends with 10 catches, totaling 131 yards and two scores. He caught six passes for 73 yards all of last season.

Scheelhaase was out because of an ankle injury, but the “biggest problem for the Illini (1-1) was on defense”:, especially against the pass.

“We had a lot of ‘eye’ violations,” Beckman said. “We aren’t keying what we are supposed to key. As you saw, there were some wide-open receivers at times.”

Illinois joined Nebraska (to UCLA) and Wisconsin (to Oregon State) as Big Ten teams to lose at Pac-12 schools on Saturday. It was a rough day for the conference overall, with the 12 teams going a combined 6-6.

Beckman got his first loss as an Illini coach after a 24-7 win in last week’s season opener against Western Michigan.

Arizona State (2-0) could have won even bigger but fumbled the ball away twice inside the Illinois 10. The Sun Devils, who gained a reputation as undisciplined and penalty-prone under former coach Dennis Erickson, were penalized once for 5 yards, and that was an intentional delay of game to set up a punt.

Freshman Carlos Mendoza had two interceptions for Arizona State, which was without linebacker Brandon Magee because of a concussion.

Josh Ferguson rushed for 101 yards in 14 carries for the Illini, 51 of them on one carry. The Sun Devils rolled up 510 yards to 332 for Illinois.

Scheelhaase, a junior who has started 27 games, was a “game-time decision”: after injuring an ankle in last week’s season opener.

“He wasn’t ready, so we aren’t going to put anything that is detrimental to him or the football team on the line,” Beckman said. “He just was not ready yet, so that is why we decided not to play Nathan.”

Both of his replacements, Reilly O’Toole and Miles Osei, had their struggles, but neither plays defense, where the lion’s share of the blame rests.

Arizona State completed its first 14 passes, 10 by Kelly and four by Eubank.

The two quarterbacks combined to complete 16 of 18 passes to an array of wide-open receivers in the first half, building a 28-7 lead.

Coyle had seven catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns in the first half.

The Sun Devils took the opening kickoff and quickly drove from their 31-yard line to the Illini 3. But on first-and-goal, Marshall fumbled, and Patrick Nixon-Youman recovered at the Illini 1-yard-line.

Illinois moved the ball to its 24 before being forced to punt, and Arizona State bolted downfield on offense again.

Kelly had passes of 20 yards to Coyle and 23 to D.J. Foster in an eight-play, 65-yard scoring drive. Kelly threw 5 yards to junior tight-end Kevin Ozier for the touchdown to make it 7-0.

A second delay-of-game penalty on O’Toole and an Illinois three-and-out followed, then Arizona State zipped to another score.

Kelly had passes of 19 and 30 yards to Coyle, and Cameron Marshall scored on a 2-yard run to make it 14-0 with 1:32 left in the first quarter.

Osei replaced O’Toole and directed an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Donovonn Young’s 14-yard scoring run cut the lead to 14-7. But the Illini could not slow down, let alone stop, the Sun Devils.

Eubank, Arizona State’s touted redshirt freshman, came in and led a seven-play, 84-yard scoring drive that took just 2:29. He threw a 1-yard pass to Coyle for the touchdown to make it 21-7.

Then things fell apart for Osei. His ill-advised pass was picked off by Mendoza at the Illinois 46. Four plays later, after Kelly threw 41 yards to Jamal Miles, Eubank tossed 3 yards to Coyle for another score, and the Sun Devils were up 28-7. Mendoza picked off Osei again on Illinois’ next possession, and the Illini went back to O’Toole.

On the second play following the second-half kickoff, O’Toole’s pass was intercepted by Alonzo Agwuenu, who returned it 34 yards to the Illinois 13.

Kelly threw 12 yards to Foster, then Foster scored on a 1-yard run, and it was 35-7 just 1 minute, 15 seconds into the third quarter.