It took over a year, but Illinois coach Tim Beckman finally got his signature win. It was a matchup of the Fighting Illini, who were 2-10 a year ago, against the Cincinnati Bearcats, who were 10-3 last season. The teams’ records from a season ago suggested a lopsided affair—only Illinois flipped the script. The Illini jumped out to a 21-0 lead and never looked back, winning 45-17 over the Bearcats.
New Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit continued to call the right plays and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase continued to orchestrate them perfectly.
The Illini got creative with their running game after rushing for only 49 yards last week against Southern Illinois.
In the second quarter, Scheelhaase faked a handoff to sophomore running back Donovonn Young and flipped the ball to wide out Ryan Lankford on a jet sweep, with Lankford running it in for a 29 yard score. The run put Illinois up 14-0 with 12:47 left in the second.
The Illini would run that same play for Lankford later in the quarter—this time for a six yard gain. The run was followed up with 23 yard touchdown pass to a wide open Evan Wilson giving Illinois a 21-0 lead with 7:04 left in the first half.
Scheelhaase enjoyed running Cubit’s trick plays.
“It’s fun,” Scheelhaase said. “I think everybody looks forward to the different stuff we’ll do week to week. I think for us it’s fun, I think for the defensive coordinator it puts a lot of pressure on them and makes them think—just a lot of stuff coming at them.”
Scheelhaase didn’t slow down after throwing for a career-high 416 yards last week. He completed 17 of 21 passes for 168 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first half.
He finished with 312 yards and four touchdowns in the game—matching his touchdown total from all of last season in the game alone.
Scheelhaase might not have the biggest arm, but that’s not what matters most to Cubit.
“I’ll be honest with you I think most great quarterbacks do not have the strongest arms,” Cubit said. “I think they’re smart, I think they understand where to go with the ball, they understand timing, they understand anticipation, give me those quarterbacks any day of the week.”
The same Bearcat offense that ran wild against Purdue couldn’t get anything going against the Illini. Cincinnati was only 3-13 on third down conversions and 0-2 on fourth downs. The Bearcats had six false start penalties that continued to disrupt any sort of rhythm.
Just when it seemed like nothing could get worse for Cincinnati—disaster struck.
With 9:23 left in the fourth, senior quarterback Munchie Legaux took a low hit by Illinois defensive end Tim Kynard on an incomplete pass. The hit contorted Legaux’s knee creating a gruesome scene.
Illinois linebacker Houston Bates immediately knew the injury was serious, as he frantically waived over the medical staff.
The Cincinnati team stood and prayed on the field for their downed player. Legaux was eventually carted off the field.
Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said Legaux was taken straight to the hospital, but remains concerned for his quarterback.
“Munchie… it doesn’t look good,” Tuberville said. “I feel bad for him. He was pretty good pain on the field and so we won’t guess. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
After Legaux went down, the Bearcats energy seemed to go out with him.
Senior receiver Miles Osei brought a punt back for 38 yards to set the Illini up on the CIN 26. After only two plays, a Scheelhaase pass once again found the end zone, this time junior transfer Martize Barr came up with the 26 yard score.
Towards the end of the first half prior to his injury, Legaux began to showcase his dual threat ability.
Legaux rushed for 39 yards on a drive that brought the Bearcats deep into Illinois territory.
After a pass interference penalty by Illini cornerback Eaton Spence, Legaux threw a one yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone to sophomore wide out Max Morrison.
Legaux had 237 yards in the air and 52 yards on the ground before he exited the game.
Cincinnati’s 14-play, three minute drive cut the Illinois lead to 21-7 heading into the locker room.
Just a week ago, the Bearcats exploded for 28 second half points after scoring only 14 points in the first half. Illinois was outscored 27-17 in the second half of their game last week—so the Illini lead were anything but safe.
After Cincinnati cut their deficit to 21-10 after a field goal, Legaux kept the momentum rolling. Legaux completed a 32 yard pass to Morrison, with four yards added on at the end from an unnecessary roughness penalty on freshman defensive back Darius Mosely.
The Bearcats pushed their way to the goal line and were a mere yard away from making it a single digit game. Cincinnati was poised with a crucial 4th and 1 and opted to go for the touchdown.
Right off the snap, Legaux scrambled to the right, put his helmet down and dove into a pile of Illinois players for what was initially ruled a touchdown. After the play was reviewed for several minutes the referees determined Legaux fumbled the ball before crossing the end zone, giving the possession to Illinois.
“That was huge,” Illinois senior linebacker Jonathan Brown said after leading the team in tackles for a second straight game with 14 tackles, including 10 in the first half. “It would’ve brought the game within four points. But I’m proud of my guys because we stood up, we made the play and we gave our offense the ball.”
The play proved to be the turning point of the game, as the Illini marched down the field from their own end zone.
Lankford would be called on again in the backfield, this time getting the ball on a reverse for 12 yards. Two plays later, Scheelhaase threw a 14 yard pass to senior Miles Osei to set up Illinois on the CIN 46.
The Illini kept running trick plays with their receivers as Barr rushed for 24 yards, putting the Illini in the red zone. Barr added 72 yards and a touchdown receiving in the game.
After the Barr run, Scheelhaase found an open Steve Hull for a 22 yard touchdown.
Illinois took a 28-10 lead after a miraculous 99 yard drive. Illinois matched their longest drive in school history and their longest since 2009 against Michigan.
Illinois went on to score the game’s final 17 points after the big goal line stop.
The win is Beckman’s second against an FBS opponent as the Illini coach.
“Well we all feel good after winning,” Beckman said. “The hard work that you put into it, the ten months that you put in—blood sweat and tears that they went through from winter workouts, spring ball, summer workouts. Yeah, it’s a good feeling, but it won’t mean anything this Saturday.”
The Fighting Illini will test their third 2-0 start in nine years next week in Soldier Field when they take on the No. 20 ranked Washington Huskies.