Illini win shows faults, strengths, how much further they have to go

A “dubya” is most definitely a “dubya.” 

Beckman’s postgame mantra reflects pretty accurately on an Illinois football team that got away with one after easing up on Southern Illinois. The Illini escaped with a 42-34 victory.

Illinois hasn’t experienced a “dubya” since the last time it faced an FCS opponent, Charleston Southern, and is off to a 1-0 start in 2013.

This team will take a win because losing has haunted it since early last season. Wiping away 11 months and nine consecutive games’ worth of losing, the Illini have something to build off. That’s important.

Nathan Scheelhaase looked free, throwing to 10 different receivers, long and short, making plays with his arm instead of just his legs. He finished the day with 416 yards passing, a career high.

This isn’t Bill Cubit’s offense, though, supposedly. Beckman and Cubit maintain that they want the offense to be balanced, and that Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson are to co-captain the run game, despite Ferguson outshining the junior from Katy, Texas.

False start

Starting a football season is a tall order. The last two years, Illinois has done it in style. This year, Ryan Lankford’s big opening-drive catch went for 52 yards instead of 64, and he didn’t carry it into the end zone.

Your first play on offense should be a projection of your offensive identity. I wrote last week how Illinois should start with running game, and Cubit promptly disobeyed me, flashing the big guns with Lankford shaking single coverage for a big gain. It’s not that I’m against 50-yard passes, it’s just that everyone in the stadium knows that’s not what the offense is going to be like this season. At least not when the Big Ten defenses come to town.

Young and Ferguson did some things wrong in the run game during the first half. Young was looked to after the big pass to finish the first drive, and he stalled en route to a field goal. They both ran east and west instead of north and south. On a couple occasions, Young looked to shake to the outside in lieu of hitting a hole provided for him by the offensive line. Illinois had -19 rush yards at halftime. Yikes.

Rolling deep

The second quarter saw the Illini nab 22 points, including seven on a cutthroat 95-yard, 75-second drive to end the half. Scheelhaase got rolling with his receivers, particularly Lankford, who had 115 yards by half.

Though Lankford was the most consistent pass-catcher, Illinois used various other weapons to punch home their scores. Ferguson scored the first touchdown of the season by taking a dump off for 53 yards, which was the longest touchdown pass for Illinois since Lankford’s season opener last year. Young got his later in the quarter, pounding in a two-yard run for six.

The 95-yard drive to end the half was capped with a short out pass to Jon Davis from 11 yards out. Scheelhaase was already honing in on a career high by half with 340 yards.

In the second half, the scoring continued, albeit with a few hiccups. Scheelhaase was hit as he threw a second down pass, leading to an interception and eventually a touchdown for Southern. When he got the ball back, he led the offense downfield with help from a 34-yard Ferguson run and a 33-yard scamper by tight end Tim Clary, who was tripped up (very casually, I might add) on the two.

In came Aaron Bailey, four-star freshman out of Bolingbrook, Ill. Bailey is an inch shorter and 15 pounds bulkier than Scheelhaase, and took a QB draw up the middle for six. Later in the third, defensive back V’Angelo Bentley took a kickoff 100 yards for six.

It came from special teams, it came from the running game, it came from the passing game, it came from the quarterback runs. When this offense got rolling, it was very balanced. It’ll be interesting to see which forms of production hold firm as the schedule gets tougher.

The turning point

Illinois had a comfortable handle on things until seven minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Illini had just held the Salukis to a field goal, and Reilly O’Toole was inserted into the game with the lead at 15, 42-27.

On his third play from center, O’Toole was hit and coughed up the ball, turning it back to the Salukis, who took just 50 seconds to go 31 yards to get within one possession.

Needless to say, the 400-yard passer returned to the field, and handed it off twice before being sacked on 3rd and 5 to give Southern a chance to make Illinois look foolish.

O’Toole hadn’t seen the field until that point in the game, despite Cubit and Beckman saying they wanted to get him involved. O’Toole does not fit into this team on a situational basis — he is the backup quarterback.

Thus, if you’re putting your backup quarterback in the game, you’re making the statement that you’ve won. You don’t need your most competitive lineup out there because you can win without it.

This was a product of Illinois wanting to blow out Southern. Cubit and Beckman likely wanted to insert O’Toole in an out-of-reach situation. 

“Thought Reilly was deserving of getting in,” Beckman said. “Just a matter of when and where. Reilly O’Toole deserves to play in the game.”

There’s your tragedy. He’s Reilly O’Toole — so highly touted out of high school. Many thought he would put Scheelhaase in a Miles Osei-like, converted wide receiver role. But he just hasn’t worked out here at Illinois.

His insertion into the game takes away rhythm Scheelhaase builds. He’s not a quick-hitting, in-and-out substitution like Bailey proved to be.

He’s a starting-caliber quarterback. It hasn’t come together for him as a change-of-pace player, and games like Saturday’s show why it’s time to give up on O’Toole being a contributor at Illinois. He could succeed in a different program, with sole reins to the offense, but as a leader on a drive here, a drive there, it doesn’t work.

Beckman had no hesitation playing him; he clearly likes the kid. And it’s sad, but O’Toole could use a change of scenery as much as Scheelhaase could probably use him off his back.

It’s not Reilly’s fault. He’s been let down by the program. But it’s hard to deny at this point that it’s anything but the best option to let Nate have sole control of the offense.

Should Scheelhaase suffer an injury, O’Toole would be a valuable backup. Prized, even. But the only thing he did Saturday was turn the game around in the wrong way.

Hold on, and move on

If you’re a defensive player and your team has just inserted your backup quarterback, how can your mind set not change to that of the game being over?

Suddenly, you’re back on the field and your home stadium is chanting the initials of the other program. There’s 30 yards between your back and the end zone and you had been hoping to take a breather right about now because it’s ludicrously hot outside.

Likewise, Scheelhaase’s day was done until O’Toole fumbled. It became undone. He was rhythmless, and he was sacked in his one dropback after being reinserted.

On the field, the Illini knew they had no time to think about the larger context of allowing the Salukis back in it. Jonathan Brown and Eaton Spence were pumping up the crowd as though they were rallying their way toward an upset. Credit should be given to the defense for getting back up for the final possession, and forcing a poor throw from Salukis quarterback Kory Faulkner to clinch the game.

Next up, a ferocious Cincinnati team awaits. The Bearcats thrashed Purdue 42-7 in their opener and look to double up on Big Ten victories next week when they come to town.

Adjustments need to be made, and Illinois hopes to avoid a letdown similar to the one they experienced last season against Arizona State. I’ve harped on this before, but the difference is competitiveness. Getting blown out and giving up is not an option. A close game will show growth for the Illini.

And while a 42-34 nailbiter against Southern Illinois doesn’t instill a whole lot of confidence, it didn’t do much to hide the team’s flaws, and there were some strengths to take away as well.

If the Illini keep up the competitiveness, and continue to share the wealth on offense, you’ll see greater returns than in 2012. That doesn’t mean a lot, given last year’s performance, but it’s a start, and that’s more than Beckman got last season.

Eliot is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @EliotTweet.