The Illini probably wished their season opener against Southern Illinois would’ve ended at half time. After leading 25-7 at the half, the Illini fought off a feisty Saluki comeback to hold onto the 42-34 victory.
After trailing 7-3 after the first quarter, under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, the Illinois offense came alive in the second.
In the Illini’s second drive of the quarter senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase flipped a screen pass to sophomore running back Josh Ferguson, who made the first defender miss, ran down the sidelines and cutback for a 53 yard touchdown.
Ferguson finished with a career-high 103 receiving yards and added 49 yards on the ground.
Cubit was thrilled with the play of his running back.
“He’s gotta get snaps because he’s a dynamic guy,” Cubit said. “You gotta get him out in open space and get him the ball and every time he got the ball in open space he made something happen.”
On the first play of the Saluki’s next drive, senior quarterback Kory Faulkner rushed for a two yard gain but coughed the ball up after a tackle by Illinois defensive end Kynard. Defensive end Houston Bates recovered the ball for Illinois.
On the next play, Scheelhaase found senior Ryan Lankford for a 28 yard gain putting Illinois on the two yard line.
Lankford finished with a career-high 115 receiving yards.
Junior running back Donovonn Young cashed in a touchdown after Lankford’s catch, the second of two touchdowns for the Illini in just 29 seconds. Illinois led 16-7 with 9:02 left in the half.
Towards the end of the second quarter, Scheelhaase completed a 55 yard pass to Steve Hull, who’s converted back to wide receiver after playing safety last season. After a three yard touchdown pass to tight end Jon Davis, the Fighting Illini took a 25-17 into the locker room.
Scheelhaase completed 22-28 of his passes for 340 yards and 2 touchdowns—in the first half alone. Scheelhaase didn’t have a single 300 yard game all of last season and he’s only hit that mark one other game in his career.
Scheelhaase would finish with a career-high 416 yards, but he credits his success to his protection.
“It comes with feeling confident in your O-line,” Scheelhaase said. “I think those guys have established a lot of confidence in what we feel like at quarterback. Whenever those guys are protecting you it kind of all springs.”
Just as Scheelhaase seemed untouchable, he threw an interception to sophomore defensive end Calvin Belts that was returned for 27 yards. The pick set up the touchdown for Southern Illinois which came on a three yard catch by fullback Rik Hicks. Illinois led 25-14 with 12:04 left in the third quarter.
On the next Illini drive, after rushing for -19 yards in the first half, the running game came alive. Ferguson followed up a seven yard run with a 34 yard scamper.
Tight end Tim Clary caught a 33 yard pass on the next play and was tripped up at the two yard line, setting up a rushing touchdown from highly-touted freshmen quarterback Aaron Bailey. Bailey figures to be a huge part the Illini’s future.
Sophomore cornerback V’Angelo Bentley seemed to take away just about any chance of a Southern Illinois comeback by busting out a 100 yard kickoff return, pulling the Illini lead back out to 39-17 with 5:30 left in the third. The return is tied for the longest kickoff return in Illinois history and it was the first Illini kickoff return for a touchdown since A.J. Jenkins returned one for 96 yards against Indiana in 2008.
Just when Illinois started to feel safe the Salukis clawed back into the game.
Despite Scheelhaase’s career-night, junior Reilly O’Toole was subbed in at quarterback in the fourth quarter. O’Toole was sacked by junior linebacker Tyler Williamson on the third play of the drive and coughed up the ball, with Saluki defensive end Brandon Williams jumping on the ball.
Second year coach Tim Beckman defends his decision to bring O’Toole in.
“We felt Reilly O’Toole was deserving of getting in the football game,” Beckman said. “This football team knew he was going to play in this game it was just a matter of when and where.”
On the ensuing drive, Faulkner threw a one yard touchdown pass to tight end MyCole Pruitt and cut it to 42-34 Illinois lead with 4:14 left. Faulkner finished with 312 yards in the air and three touchdowns.
After a three and out by the Illini, the Salukis would get the ball back and marched into the red zone. A rare 15 yard sideline penalty against the Illini set the Salukis up at the goal line, which eventually led to a pivotal 4th and 3.
After a seven play, 54 yard drive Faulkner threw an incomplete pass to tight end Adam Fuehne, sealing the victory for the Illini.
Having snapped a nine game losing streak, Beckman said, “This team needs to learn how to win and learn how to feel after a W.”
Scheelhaase has already shown an eagerness to take something out of the victory.
“We love to learn from wins,” Scheelhaase said. “Even if they’re ugly, if they’re not exactly what you expected. Look at a team like K-State. A national championship contender, I know they’d rather be in our shoes right now with what went on with them and North Dakota St., so yeah, a win is a win.”
Next week against the Cincinnati Bearcats—who happened to beat Purdue 42-7 on Saturday—Illinois will show just how long they can keep up their winning ways.