Illini hold on against Southern Illinois

In a game in which scoring fireworks dominated the game, it was a rare defensive stop that sealed a victory for the Illinois football team.

The Illini held on to a 42-34 victory in the nerve-wracking final minute to survive a furious comeback effort by Southern Illinois on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

While the Illini held a 25-7 advantage at halftime and 42-24 margin with just more than seven minutes left in the game, the Salukis made a charge that brought them within three yards of the potential game-tying two-point conversion attempt.

Driving methodically down the field, Southern Illinois drove 54 yards in six plays, with help from a sideline interference penalty on Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks before stalling out near the goal line. On a 4th and goal from the 3-yard line, SIU quarterback Kory Faulkner sailed a pass over 6-foot-7 tight end Adam Fuehne’s head, and only then could the Illini breathe easy.

“You got to stay out the way,” Banks said about the penalty. “But we got put in a position where you got to get it done and last year, I’m not sure we make that play.”

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had a career game with 416 passing yards and two touchdowns to fuel new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s up-tempo attack. 

On the first play from scrimmage, Scheelhaase found senior wideout Ryan Lankford for 52 yards on a play action pass – reminiscent of the duo’s 64-yard connection on the team’s first drive of last season against Western Michigan.

“Yeah, it’s a bit of a tradition to do it again for the last time, the first last time,” Lankford said. “We had been working on it all week. Coach Cubit just told me, ‘Run it down.’”

Scheelhaase notched 407 passing yards in the first three quarters before the Illinois offense stalled most of the final quarter. It was the first 400-yard game for Illinois since Juice Williams threw for 462 yards against Minnesota in 2008.

After a Southern Illinois field goal brought the margin to 42-27 with 7:08 remaining in the game, the Illini benched Scheelhaase in favor of backup Reilly O’Toole. 

While trying to burn clock, the Illini were assessed a delay of game penalty to turn a 2nd and 1 into a 2nd and 6. Two plays later, O’Toole scrambled to his left and was hit by the Salukis’ Tyler Williamson and fumbled. SIU recovered the ball at the Illini 31-yard line.

That led to a quick Salukis touchdown and, after an Illinois 3-and-out, led to the game-deciding drive with 3:10 remaining in the contest.

“We’re not the kid on the street with the shiny shoes, big house, nice car,” Scheelhaase said. “We have snot in the nose. We’re going to go out and grind.”

Although Scheelhaase and the offense were clicking for most of the game, the Illini received some unexpected support on special teams when cornerback V’Angelo Bentley took a kickoff coast-to-coast for a 100-yard touchdown return. It was the first kick return touchdown since A.J. Jenkins took back a 96-yard return against Indiana in 2008.

Although the game may have been too close for the comfort of Illini fans, Scheelhaase said he preferred a close game to the blowout some expected – the Illini were 17-point favorites.

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.