Lankford TD catch proves that Illini won’t be bullied

CHICAGO — The 2012 edition of Illinois football was not a prideful beast. The Illini lost six games by at least 28 points, and only once managed a one-possession game in defeat.

Saturday night in Chicago, the Illini seemed to be returning to those losing ways. Another sub-90-second drive by Washington had put Illinois down 31-10. The Huskies had showed themselves to be the superior team.

Illini fans knew the drill: “Here’s my lunch money, please try not to break my nose or knock out my teeth.”

The atmosphere at Soldier Field turned from that of a competitive football game into a last call of sorts. “One more beer,” implied the predominantly Illinois-backing crowd of 47,000, “and we’re out of here.”

But Nathan Scheelhaase had a point to prove — Illinois football is done being bullied.

Just when you wanted to turn your head away, when the hard-to-watch part was about to start, it happened. Scheelhaase threw a ball that soared into the night, getting lost in the Soldier Field lights before it came down, almost perfectly vertical, into the hands of a sprinting Ryan Lankford.

Week 1’s opening tantalization would not be a lie this year. This type of haymaker is something Illinois has in its arsenal.

Lankford looked up to find the ball, and saw it was outrunning him. But it wasn’t the time for an overthrow.

“I saw the ball just takin’ off,” Lankford said. “So I said: ‘I’d better get goin’.’ I picked it up, picked it up, threw my hands up there last minute, caught it, and ran the rest of the way.”

It was as pure a bomb as Scheelhaase has launched in his time at Illinois. He didn’t want to see this team this year get pushed around. So he swung his hardest. His team swung alongside him.

“As a player, that’s fun to be out there with guys who are willing to fight like that, willing to step up when adversity strikes,” Scheelhaase said. “And that’s something that I don’t think we’ve had, I didn’t see that a lot last year.”

And he’s right — Illinois didn’t have a single loss like this last year. This was Illinois’ most hard-fought defeat since the 67-65 not-a-basketball-game loss to Michigan at The Big House.

After the pass, Washington staggered a little, as the Illini defense forced a rare second half Huskies punt. The Illini were unable to capitalize immediately, going three and out. They battled and eventually brought the deficit back to a touchdown thanks to an Aaron Bailey scamper on 4th and The Game.

Chicago was enthused.

The Washington run game, which had certainly had its way against the young Illinois defense, eventually regained its footing and finished the game out strong. Illinois lost. But it got its licks in first.

A loss is a loss, but demeanor matters, especially in football. And after the game, nearly every Illini player that talked to the media expressed disappointment, yes, but also a pride in the way their team had played.

Against a top-20 team Saturday night in the limelight of Soldier Field, Illinois stood up for itself, and in the process remembered what can be gained in a loss.

Scheelhaase’s throw to Lankford wasn’t the only positive of the second half, but it came at a point when everything seemed to be returning to normal, which for Illinois football is a place that best be left abandoned.

The Illini may have gotten sent home with a black eye, but I’ll be damned if for the first time in a long time they didn’t at least keep their lunch money.

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