CHAMPAIGN – Tim Beckman said it so often Saturday it was hard to tell if he was trying to convince his audience or himself.
“A ‘W’ is a ‘W,’” the sweat-soaked Illini head football coach repeatedly maintained after his team survived damaging fourth-quarter mistakes and a Southern Illinois rally, holding on for a 42-34 season-opening victory at Memorial Stadium.
Illinois seemed safely ahead 42-24 with eight minutes to go. But following miscues that included a lost fumble by backup quarterback Reilly O’Toole, Illinois found itself in a one-possession game, leading 42-34 as SIU faced fourth down at the Illini 4-yard line.
With less than a minute to play, the Salukis were a touchdown and two-point conversion away from forcing overtime.
The victory wasn’t assured until SIU quarterback Kory Faulkner’s pass to Adam Fuehne sailed over his head in the end zone with 40 seconds to play.
With a heat index of 104 degrees, less than half of an announced crowd of 42,175 was still in the seats to see Illinois win for the first time since Sept. 15 of last year.
“A ‘W’ is a ‘W,’ that’s what we told this team,” Beckman repeated. “Although it was not the most glorious win, I’m proud of the way this team fought. We did some things today.”
Offensively, Illinois did quite a bit.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw for a career-high 416 yards, including 340 yards in the first half. Working comfortably in new coordinator Bill Cubit’s offense, Scheelhaase completed 28 of 36 passes including two touchdown passes and one interception.
Scheelhaase’s 416 passing yards rank as the 10th highest in school history. It’s also the fifth-most ever by an Illini quarterback at Memorial Stadium.
Two receivers topped 100 yards. Ryan Lankford, who hooked up with Scheelhaase for a 52-yard gain on the game’s first play, had six catches for 115 yards. And running back Josh Ferguson had four catches for 103 yards including a 53-yard screen pass for a touchdown.
“We’re getting comfortable in this offense,” said Lankford, whose 115 yards were a career best. “I’d attribute that to repetition. Practice, time, reps, film. Practice, time, reps, film. Just doing it over and over again.”
Still, Illinois sputtered to get going early, especially in the running game. SIU used a 39-yard pass play from Faulkner to John Lantz to set up Mika’il McCall’s 1-yard touchdown run that gave the Salukis a 7-3 lead into the second quarter.
The game turned, however, when Illinois scored a pair of touchdowns in a 29-second span later in that period.
First came the 53-yard screen pass to Ferguson, who dodged one tackle and followed Spencer Harris’ blocking for a touchdown that put Illinois on top, 10-7.
On its first play after the ensuing kickoff, SIU’s McCall fumbled and Houston Bates recovered for Illinois at the Saluki 30.
A 28-yard pass to Lankford put the ball at the 2 and from there Donovonn Young took it into the end zone for a 17-7 lead.
Then, with 1:32 to go in the half, Illinois took over again, this time from its own 6-yard line.
Rather than run out the clock, the offense was aggressive.
“We’re not taking a knee to run out a quarter,” Beckman said. “We’re not doing that anymore. We’re here to win, to score points.”
Illinois moved the ball to its 31 and from there Scheelhaase hit Steve Hull with a bullet over the middle. The play covered 55 yards and took the ball to the SIU 14. Two plays later Scheelhaase and Jon Davis hooked up on an 11-yard touchdown to give Illinois a 25-7 lead.
The 94-yard drive took 75 seconds.
“Those plays in the second quarter … we kind of stubbed our toe, gave up 21 points and had no answer for it,” SIU coach Dale Lennon said.
A 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by V’Angelo Bentley helped Illinois in the third quarter at a time when SIU was starting to stage a comeback.
Illinois did as promised and played all three of its quarterbacks. True freshman Aaron Bailey was used in two short-yardage situations and ran for a 2-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
But it was the insertion of O’Toole with 7:08 to go that Beckman had to explain.
It came with Illinois ahead 42-27, but rather quickly O’Toole made two costly mistakes. He was flagged for delay of game that turned a second-and-1 into second-and-6. And O’Toole followed that by being sacked, then by coughing up a fumble that SIU’s Brandon Williams recovered with 5:04 to go at the Illini 31.
That set up a Faulkner-to-MyCole Pruitt TD pass that made it 42-34.
Scheelhaase returned at quarterback but was unable to move the team. After punter Justin DuVernois wobbled a 35-yard kick out of bounds, SIU tried to drive for the game-tying points.
A sideline interference penalty on Illini defensive coordinator Tim Banks helped advance the ball to the Illini 9, but the drive fizzled when Faulkner was unable to complete his end zone pass on fourth down.
It figures to get tougher when Cincinnati comes to Memorial Stadium for another 11 a.m. game this week. The Bearcats mauled Purdue 42-7 Saturday.