CHAMPAIGN — Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
That’s what coaches preach to their players all of the time.
On Saturday afternoon, winning wasn’t good enough for a handful of fans behind the University of Illinois bench at Memorial Stadium.
They could be heard yelling at Illinois coach Tim Beckman right after the Fighting Illini survived with a 42-34 win over the Football Championship Subdivision Southern Illinois Salukis.
“I gathered the team up when the game was done, although it was not the most glorious win, I was proud of the way the team fought and did some things today,’’ Beckman said. “It’s a W. This team needs to learn how to win and how to feel after a W.
“I’m pleased with all of them. Ws are hard to come by and that’s what I told this team. We are going to cherish these Ws and we are going to get ready for Cincinnati.’’
Beckman acknowledged that it wasn’t acceptable for the Fighting Illini (1-0) to be outscored 17-3 in the final 17 minutes, 48 seconds.
“These things have to get corrected,’’ he said.
But, it is the first win for Illinois since a 44-0 victory over Charleston Southern on Sept. 15, 2012.
“It wasn’t a perfect win,’’ said Illinois senior wide receiver Ryan Lankford, who had six receptions for 115 yards. “There are plenty of things that we could have done better in all phases of the game. We will grade the film and work on those corrections.’’
Surprisingly, one thing that should grade out very well for the Illini is senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who threw for a career-high 416 yards and two touchdowns.
“You saw Nathan Scheelhaase have an outstanding game,’’ Beckman said.
But Scheelhaase, as he typically will do, didn’t want to talk just about his success.
“I thought we were pretty productive,’’ he said as the Illini offense finished with 464 yards of total offense. “We did some good things, but we just need to be more consistent in what we were doing. Anytime, you put up the points like we did today and come out with the win, you are going to feel good.’’
And while the quarterback didn’t want to talk about himself, that didn’t keep his senior wide receiver from talking about him.
“Nathan had a great performance. As a WR, you love when a QB can get the ball around to all the receivers,’’ Lankford said, noting that Scheelhaase completed passes to 10 different receivers.
Lankford also loved how he and Scheelhaase started their day. On the first play from scrimmage, the duo connected on a 52-yard pass play leading to a 33-yard field goal by Taylor Zalewski, giving Illinois a 3-0 lead.
“After we hit it in Rantoul during one of the scrimmages, it was something we really liked,’’ said Scheelhaase, who seemingly did a number of things that most people thought he couldn’t do and his offensive coordinator cannot understand why he still has to prove himself.
“They should be excited about Nathan Scheelhaase for everything he has done here so far,’’ said Bill Cubit, the former head coach at Western Michigan. “He’s won two bowl games. Last year, the guy was really hurt.
“This has been fun for me, because when I first got here. All I heard was that he’s not going to throw real well. All these doubters and stuff like that. We fixed it together.’’
Cubit admitted that he had to correct the Scheelhaase throwing motion and his hip placement.
“I also evaluated him during every scrimmage that we had and he always started off slow,’’ Cubit said. “It was because we didn’t warm up enough. Some guys can just go out there, chuck it around and be ready in two minutes.
“We took Nate out early, and I think it showed in the second half, because when we went back out there, that’s when he didn’t look as good.’’
The first pass play by Scheelhaase in the second half resulted in his only interception.
“There was a little indecision and I thought he tried to force it in,’’ Cubit said. “This is the first time that he and I have worked together. There are some things that we need to straighten out.
“It’s a good start, not great, but a good start.’’
It was also a good start for Illinois freshman quarterback Aaron Bailey. The highly-touted recruit from Bolingbrook ran the ball twice for 6 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
“We want to play players,’’ Beckman said. “He’s a young man that we put that type of offense in for him to be successful.’’
And while that worked for Bailey, the same couldn’t be said for Reilly O’Toole.
The junior from Wheaton-Warrenville South struggled during his playing time in the fourth quarter. A delay of game penalty and a turnover gave the Salukis (0-1) an opportunity to come back in the final minutes.
“We felt Reilly O’Toole was deserving of getting into the football game,’’ Beckman said. “It was just a matter of when and where. We tell our team on Friday who is going to play.
“We gave up some big plays and we turned the ball over. You can’t turn the football over in any game, regardless of who you are playing and expect to be successful.’’
Ultimately, the Illinois defense made a stop on SIU’s final offensive play as Kory Faulkner, who threw for 312 yards and 3 scores, overthrew his intended receiver Adam Fuehne, a 6-foot-7 receiver.
“They put in a 6-7 receiver, so it was kind of obvious that they were probably going to throw to him,’’ said Illinois sophomore defensive back V’Angelo Bentley. “We have built our defense on pride and making stands when they count.
“It’s was fourth down and probably the biggest play of the game. Our coaches and (teammates) believed in us, we believed in the call and we made a play.’’
Bentley also had a hand in the scoring with a 100-yard kickoff return in the third quarter. It was the first kickoff return for a score since A.J. Jenkins went 96 yards against Indiana in 2008.
“Coach (Mile) Bellamy challenged me to make a play for the team and get a return for a touchdown,’’ Bentley said. “Before the season started, all we heard was how their hadn’t be a kick or punt return in years. We put that burden on ourselves to make the play.
“Everyone made their blocks and I just had to run the ball down the field.’’
With their 16th straight home-opening victory behind them, the Illini will now turn their attention to a BCS conference opponent.
Illinois will host the Cincinnati Bearcats, a 42-7 winner over Purdue on Saturday, in a 11 a.m. contest next Saturday at Memorial Stadium.