Illini roll against Charleston behind play of O’Toole

When Illinois quarterback Reilly O’Toole found out that his completion percentage of .839 from Saturday’s 44-0 victory over Charleston Southern set a school record, he simply shrugged it off and replied, nonchalantly, “That’s cool.”

He deflected the credit anywhere but himself: his receivers for getting open, his line for blocking well, his coaches for their game plan. But his second career start was completely different from a disastrous first attempt against Arizona State. O’Toole had a career day in front of 45, 369 at Memorial Stadium. He went 26-for-31 for the program-best completion percentage, throwing for 333 yards and five touchdowns. He is the first Illinois quarterback since Juice Williams in 2008 with five touchdowns.

Head coach Tim Beckman correctly predicted that O’Toole would give the credit to everyone else, but the sophomore looked much more comfortable in the pocket as he filled in for injured quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who missed his second straight games with an ankle injury. And Illinois struggled rushing the ball, with its leading rusher only accumulating 56 yards.

“We all knew that Reilly was a very accomplished passer, we knew he had the potential to have a game like he did today,” defensive end Michael Buchanan said. “It was great to see him go out there and kind of get our passing game going.”

Co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty says he tells his team to prepare every week like they’re playing the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, and all week long head coach Tim Beckman claimed he would treat winless FCS opponent Charleston Southern like any other team on the schedule. However, Beckman elected to sit many of his regulars: Illinois played without Scheelhaase (leg), offensive lineman Graham Pocic, (leg) running back Josh Ferguson (concussion), linebacker Houston Bates and defensive backs Supo Sanni and Steve Hull. Wide receiver Darius Millines did start the game despite an ankle injury, but finished with only one reception for three yards. He injured his left arm during the game and stood on the sideline in a sling during the second half.

The coaches reiterated that the opponent had nothing to do with the decision to sit players or not due to injury, though Beckman did say he thinks Pocic will be back next week.

But the Illini didn’t need those players for this game, especially with the defense pitching its first shutout since 2007 and its largest margin of victory in a shutout since 1965. That shutout is something Buchanan said the defense had been talking about all week after a near miss against Western Michigan – who Illinois allowed seven points to- and the miscommunication issues at Arizona State.

“It was huge,” Beckman said. “There was a lot of pride that was hurt (after last week’s 45-14 loss at Arizona State), there was no question about it, from the coaching staff down to the players.”

It was clear Charleston Southern was overmatched from the start of the game. O’Toole completed his first 10 passes and on Charleston Southern’s first drive, Buccaneers quarterback Derek Hatcher threw an interception to freshman linebacker Marcus Monheim, the first of his career. The Illini defense held Charleston Southern to just 125 yards on the day. Illinois led the game 20-0 at the half.

“A win’s a win,” Beckman said. “You only have 12 opportunities. … We’re going to cherish every opportunity, we’re going to cherish every win.”

It remains to be seen if Illinois can complete the same showing against an FBS opponent, but the Illini were able to get younger, less experienced players valuable playing time during the game. Ten Illini received in-game action for the first time in their career and two, Monheim and offensive lineman Jake Feldmeyer, made their first career starts.

Freshman wide receiver Justin Hardee posted a career high of five catches for 98 yards, freshman running back Dami Ayoola rushed for his first career touchdown in the second quarter and led the Illini in rushing, sophomore Ralph Cooper tied for the team lead in tackles on the day, and kicker Taylor Zalewski scored for the first time in his career.

“That’s what this program’s gonna need and that’s what it’s always gonna be,” Beckman said. “It’s about a bunch of young players coming in and playing. We do not have a bunch of depth. If you look at our two-deep, theres 23 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep. We are not a very veteran-laden team other than a couple senior starters.”

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