BY CHAD DARE firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — CHAMPAIGN — There was no official checklist of things the Illinois Fighting Illini wanted to get done on Saturday at Memorial Stadium against Miami (Ohio).
But, if the team had made one, the Illini (3-1) probably accomplished most everything on it during their 50-14 win over RedHawks with maybe a few exceptions — one, in particular.
“They got 14 points, and we wanted a shutout,’’ said senior linebacker Jonathan Brown, who had nine tackles to lead Illinois for the fourth straight game. “We were in position to get, and we know the mistakes that we made’’
Miami (0-4) scored twice in the final 17 minutes, 9 seconds as Illinois had mass substitutions after building a 43-0 lead. But both Brown and sophomore defensive back V’Angelo Bentley saw the kind of improvement the defensive unit was striving for after the 34-24 loss to Washington, two weeks ago.
“We’ve been working on our tackling for the last two weeks,’’ Bentley said. “I thought our tackling got better and we are doing better of recognizing formations. We are understanding what the offense is trying to do to our defense.’’
And still, not getting the shutout was something that bothered the Illinois defense.
“It’s very frustrating, because we have pride in our ourselves on getting the shutout,’’ Bentley added. “We have pride in ourselves on playing good defense. We didn’t get a takeaway today, but we got some three-and-outs. So, we will continue working on creating more turnovers.’’
While the defense can definitely see areas that need improvement, most people would be hard pressed to find too many areas of concern with the Illini offense this season.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase continued his very impressive season with five touchdown passes — more than he had in every game during the 2012 season. Four of those scoring strikes came during a 29-point second quarter, setting a new school record.
“I can’t say enough about what Nathan Scheelhaase has done,’’ Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “It’s not just about throwing touchdown passes, it’s about coming in on Mondays and over-studying so that he can have the best opportunity to be successful.
“Nathan has been buying into the system. He grasps it and he loves doing it.’’
Scheelhaase, who has thrown for 1,162 yards already this season to go along with 12 touchdowns, quickly deflects any praise on him to his offensive teammates.
“The guys out wide are really giving me confidence in what they are able to do, being in the right position and make plays when they have a chance,’’ he said. “That makes you comfortable in the pocket that those guys are going to make plays.’’
But on Saturday it wasn’t the wide receivers making the majority of the plays in the Illinois passing game.
Instead, it was the tight ends.
The trio of Matt LaCosse, Jon Davis and Evan Wilson caught six passes for 82 yards, but four of those receptions were touchdown grabs. A year ago, the Illini tight ends had just three touchdown receptions for the entire season. LaCosse finished with a career-high 68 receiving yards and his first two career touchdown catches.
“I felt like those guys were getting open,’’ Scheelhaase said. “We’ve known their depth all year. They are not just guys that can run 5-yard routes to can only catch dump passes. They are guys that can make plays downfield, they can move around.
“When you got guys like that, we need to get them involved.’’
The other key component in the Illinois offense on Saturday was the running back duo of Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young. They combined for 151 rushing yards and Ferguson, the FBS leader in receiving yards for a running back, had five receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown.
“We have to be successful with both Josh and Donovonn running the football and taking the ball on the perimeter,’’ said Beckman, referring to the rest of the year. “I’m happy with the way we move forward. And now the real time comes, your conference play. That’s what you work for and prepare for every year.’’
And Scheelhaase believes the play of the tight ends on Saturday will bode well for Illinois.
“We are going to need those guys come Big Ten time,’’ he said. “There will be times we will need to get big and we need to have those guys in there to run block and catch passes. We’ve seen our receiver group step up. We’ve seen those running backs make plays. I think seeing the tight end group make a whole lot of plays will present another threat for teams to worry about.’’
Illinois, which eclipsed last year’s win total (2) on Saturday, will enter Big Ten Conference play next week with the team’s first road game of the year at Nebraska.
“It’s definitely a better feeling than we had last year,’’ said Brown referring to being 3-1 after going 2-10. “But the main thing I’m thinking about now is getting into Big Ten Play. This is when the real season starts.
“We have been taking it week-by-week, but getting into the conference play is when you get to see teams like Ohio State, Wisconsin and of course, we’ve got Nebraska coming up.’’
The Fighting Illini will be looking to snap a 14-game conference losing streak next Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln Neb. The last Big Ten victory for Illinois was a 41-20 win at Indiana’s Memorial Stadium on Oct. 8, 2011, during the Ron Zook era.
“We see the upside of what we can have,’’ Bentley said. “We know we are going into the Big Ten Conference, which is tough, so we have to come in and prepare every week. We just need to learn the game and make the plays when they come.’’
With a 36-0 halftime lead, Illinois got the opportunity to play some of its backups and younger players in the second half.
Redshirt freshman running back Devin Church scored his first collegiate touchdown with a 12-yard run in the third quarter, giving Illinois 43-0 lead.
Freshman quarterback Aaron Bailey, who scored the game’s final touchdown on a 6-yard run in the fourth quarter, completed his first collegiate pass to Justin Hardee. He was 1-of-3 for 3 yards after entering Saturday’s game with six rushing attempts for 20 yards.
Additionally, kicker Ryan Frain, of Indianapolis Scecina, was 2-for-2 on extra points in the second half.
NOTES — The 50 points scored by Illinois were the most since scoring 56 in a win over South Dakota State. It also gave the Fighting Illini 161 points scored in its first four games, eclipsing the previous record of 158 during the 1914 season, when Illinois won both the Big Ten and National Title ... Even with three kneel downs in the final minutes, Illinois was still able to finish with 601 yards of total offense. It’s the first time that Illinois surpassed the 600-yard mark since Nov. 3, 2007. Additionally, the 394 yards in the first half is the fourth-highest total in a half for Illinois and the third-most for a first half...