Behind a strong performance by the defense and one big play from the offense, the Tim Beckman Era commenced with a 24-7 victory over Western Michigan last Saturday in Champaign.
On Illinois’ fourth play from scrimmage, Junior QB Nathan Scheelhaase connected with Junior WR Ryan Lankford for a 64-yard touchdown reception. The quick. electric strike would turn out to be an anomaly, as the Illini amassed just 173 more yards following the opening drive.
A season ago, Western Michigan QB Alex Carder threw for 548 yards and 7 touchdowns against Tim Beckman’s Toledo Rockets. On Saturday, the Illini defense, considered one of the best in the Big Ten, held Carder and the Broncos to 259 total yards and forced four turnovers.
“We were able to create a lot of turnovers which is big and is one of the things we have wanted to change,” said Senior DE Michael Buchanan, who came away with one of the three Illini interceptions. “One of the things that Coach Beckman always talks about is getting turnovers and feeding the monster and I think we did a pretty good job with that.”
Saturday’s victory came at a cost, however, when Scheelhaase sprained his ankle early in the third quarter. The Illini produced just 15 yards over their final five drives without the veteran QB under center.
“It was his ankle and we’ll continue to evaluate, but you all know Nathan Scheelhaase and Nathan Scheelhaase will do whatever he can to make sure he is prepared and ready for next week,” said Beckman after the game.
The game began to turn when Carder led the Broncos to a touchdown at the end of the third quarter, cutting the Illini lead to 17-7. After a quick stop, Western Michigan got the ball back on their own 32 and quickly pushed past midfield. With the momentum clearly shifting toward the Broncos, Ashante Williams stepped in front of an Alex Carder pass and took it 60 yards for a touchdown.
“It was huge, there’s no question,” Beckman said of Williams’ interception. “Because you know how the game was going – you were there, you understand it – the momentum kind of swung to our side after that pick.”
The Illini would hold on for a 24-7 victory, just their second season-opening win in the past six seasons.
The Illini head west this weekend to take on Arizona State in Tempe, Arizona. Illinois will look to win their first true non-conference road game (excluding neutral sites) since defeating Syracuse in 2007. A season ago, Illinois defeated Arizona State 17-14 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, the Illini’s first victory over an AP ranked team since defeating the top-ranked Buckeye’s in Columbus during the 2007 campaign.
The question will be whether Scheelhaase will be able to play, and, if so, how effectively, following a sprained ankle during the third quarter of Illinois’ 24-7 victory over Western Michigan. Scheelhaase practiced with limited contact this week and will not be ruled out for Saturday’s game.
“He [Scheelhaase] said he felt pretty good,” said Beckman after Wednesday’s practice. “I think that anytime you have an injury to the ankle, then it’s just going to progress. It’s been progressing and we’ll have to make that decision on Thursday after practice.”
While the decision on whether to play Scheelhaase has likely already been made, the Illini will not announce their starting quarterback prior to the game Saturday. If Scheelhaase can’t go, Illinois will look to Sophomore QB Reilly O’Toole and Junior QB Miles Osei to take over under center. O’Toole is considered the better passer of the two, while Osei is more effective with his legs.
Arizona State took care of business last week in a 63-6 win over Northern Arizona in Tempe. Sophomore QB Taylor Kelly completed 15 of his 19 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown, but the Sun Devils’ real damage came on the ground, as they rushed for 305 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Illinois defense will present a more formidable test than Northern Arizona. The Illini held Western Michigan to -6 rushing yards last Saturday in Champaign and forced six fumbles.
The real question comes back to the health of Scheelhaase. If he can play without being too encumbered by his ankle, the Illini come home with an impressive road win. If not, O’Toole and Osei won’t be enough to propel the Illini to victory.
Catch the game at 9:30 p.m. CT on ESPN.