Illini can’t keep up with Badgers

Coming into Saturday’s contest with Wisconsin — a team that sports a top-10 offense — the Illinois football team knew it would have to score to stay in the game. 

Despite tallying 32 points, the Illini (3-3, 0-3 Big Ten) couldn’t keep up with the Badgers (5-2, 3-1) on the scoreboard, losing 56-32 under the Memorial Stadium lights Saturday. The conference loss marked Illinois’ 16th consecutive loss in the Big Ten — a new program record. 

The Illini dug themselves into a hole early in the game, although there was potential for a big play right out of the gate. On the game’s second play, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase found Josh Ferguson on a throwback screen for a big gain down the sideline. The play was called back due to an illegal low block on guard Ted Karras, and the Illini would be forced to punt.

That would characterize the rest of the quarter for the Illini. A Wisconsin score, followed by an Illinois three-and-out and another Badger touchdown put the Illini down 14-0 with fans still finding their seats.

“In the beginnings of these games, it’s like we’re trying to feel things out,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “That worked against us again (Saturday).”

Down two scores, Cubit went to his deep bag of tricks and called a reverse pass for Scheelhaase, who was lined up as a wide receiver. But the senior couldn’t handle the pitch from freshman Aaron Bailey and the Badgers would recover the fumble and capitalize three plays later to make it 21-0. 

“You can’t fumble the football, that’s the bottom line,” head coach Tim Beckman said. “I don’t think that’s play-calling or who’s in the football game, it’s just you cannot fumble.”

The offense would come to life once the teams switched sides at the quarter and a stiff wind was at their back. Wisconsin ran many single-high safety looks defensively, and Illinois took shots down the field in response. Scheelhaase hit Steve Hull for 51 yards midway through the quarter and found Ryan Lankford streaking downfield right before halftime for 39 yards. Both plays led to Illinois touchdowns and cut the Wisconsin lead to 28-17 at the break.

The Badgers’ punishing running game with Melvin Gordon and James White would not be stopped, however, as they ran all over the Illinois defense in the second half. Gordon finished the night with 142 yards and three touchdowns, while White ended up with 98 and two scores. 

The Illini scored all 32 of their points in the north end zone, with the wind at their backs.

Although the Illinois offense has been much improved from its disastrous 2012 season, it hasn’t been up to the task against tougher competition this season.

Illinois padded its stats by averaging 45.7 points per game against Southern Illinois, Cincinnati and Miami (Ohio) — which were all victories. The offense churned out 346.3 yards per game through the air, and 11 of the team’s 14 passing touchdowns on the season came against the fluff of the Illinois schedule. 

In losses to Washington and Nebraska, the offensive numbers dropped to 184 passing yards per game, leading to just 21.5 points per game. 

There was some progress being made from the offense in Saturday’s loss. The Illini recorded 391 total yards and 32 points against a defense that had been ranked fifth in the country in total yards allowed entering the game.

Hull — a first-year wide receiver after converting from safety in the offseason — finished the game with career highs in both catches (six) and yards (105). 

“I still think against anybody we should move the ball,” Cubit said. “We’re taking an offense that was 118th in the country last year, it’s not going to happen overnight. 

“But the thing I liked was, we scored points and the kids were dissatisfied.”

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