Illinois sends clear message in rout of Cincinnati

To paraphrase the immortal Dennis Green postgame tirade: We are who you thought they were.

That was the statement made by Illinois football with a thorough 45-17 victory over Cincinnati on Saturday. The Illini had doubters, and with good reason. After Southern Illinois nearly stole one from a team that is literally out of its league, fans and media (myself included) thought we were seeing a slightly improved team from 2012.

A 42-7 whipping of Purdue, a team viewed as a peer of Illinois’ in the conference, painted the Bearcats as a terrifying opponent for a team that’s slowly learning.

It was athletic director Mike Thomas’ old school, a team that rose through the ranks and turned a mediocre program into one that went 10-3 last season. The Bearcats could dominate. Illini optimists hoped their team would remain competitive.

But no. Illinois had something to say Saturday.

Illinois ran a smooth, fast-paced offense for four quarters, taking advantage of Cincinnati’s weak edges with a dizzying array of formations and glitch plays to run away with the game.

The Illini kept a balance, with 220 rushing yards and 312 passing yards, hitting different receivers and using different players to carry the weight on the ground.

Illinois was bigger where it counted, making the final 10 yards of Cincinnati’s drives an utter pain.

This is exactly what we expected — from Cincinnati.

“We are who you thought they were.”

Those aren’t the words of Tim Beckman, who was surprisingly even-keeled after the biggest win in his tenure at Illinois. I half expected him to begin his press conference with a loud, “In your face, jerks!”

Instead, he gracefully congratulated the team and chalked it up as nothing more than one win. For him, Saturday may have brought about his first feeling of relief since agreeing to come to Illinois. He earned it with the way his team played.

Nathan Scheelhaase hit 11 different receivers and notched four touchdown passes to back up the record-breaking performance he had last week, which had been thought of as merely an experienced quarterback taking advantage of lesser competition. Ryan Lankford only caught one pass for 10 yards, but accrued 46 more and a touchdown on three carries. After the game, he kept being asked how “fun” it was to run those plays.

It was very fun. That’s right — the Illinois offense was very fun.

Saturday’s win was Beckman’s biggest, but it wasn’t really even Beckman’s win.

It was offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s; his offense generating points on a consistent basis in a way fans of last year’s Illini forgot to be possible. It was defensive coordinator Tim Banks’; his defense causing a fumble when it mattered most, turning the Bearcats away at the one-inch line. That play stands as, without question, the biggest play of the Beckman era.

It was Scheelhaase’s; the senior couldn’t keep his head above water last year in an offense that plain didn’t work. He’s already surpassed his 2012 touchdown total.

It was the defense’s; after giving up 34 points to Southern Illinois last week, allowed half that to a much better team.

Beckman’s been known as Thomas’ lesser hire, but Thomas makes a good point when he says turning around a football team to a basketball team is turning around an aircraft carrier to a speed boat. It’s possible that this win is just one win, and that Illinois just happened to have the right stuff to thwart Cincinnati.

But it’s also possible that with this win, Beckman has earned the benefit of our ponderous collective doubt. Maybe he’s earned a few years to implement his players and his system. Maybe he’s found the right man in Cubit to lead his offense. Maybe Illinois football could be big again.

After coming in with high expectations surrounding him last year, Beckman’s team was stunningly bad. This year, with exceedingly low hopes placed in it, Beckman’s team is no longer stunned, and had its wits about it to send a clear message Saturday: “You don’t know this football team.”

And we don’t know — we’re glad not to — so let’s just watch.

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