CHAMPAIGN — Illinois coach Tim Beckman will write down a few notes about key plays during the game.
On Saturday afternoon, the second-year coach almost ran out of room on his note card as both the Fighting Illini offense and defense made several critical plays en route to a 45-17 win over a heavy-favored Cincinnati Bearcats squad at Memorial Stadium.
“I’ve been doing it, because I think it’s important the players understand that’s not just one guy doing it,’’ said Beckman. “It’s a big play on third down that creates opportunities for the family to be successful.’’
Beckman rattled off at least seven keys plays for the Illinois offense. Ironically, each one was a third down conversion on a scoring drive for the Illini, which improved to 2-0, and there were five different players mentioned on his note card.
“It was players making plays. If you are going to continue drives, you have to be successful on third downs,’’ said Beckman, whose team was 9-of-15 in third down conversions. “We won third downs and the turnover battle — there are reasons you win and I definitely believe that.’’
One of the players that figured into multiple third-down conversions for the Illini was senior wide receiver Steve Hull, who had three receptions for 53 yards and a touchdown, which just happened to cap a 12-play, 99-yard drive, giving Illinois 28-10 lead.
“It’s a much different environment,’’ said Hull, who had played defensive back before switching to wide receiver this season. “The attitude of the offense was a lot better than it has been in recent years.’’
And that showed on a third down-and-19 play early in the fourth quarter. The Illini had just converted on third down, but a holding penalty negated the pass from Nathan Scheelhaase to Miles Osei.
From his own 38, Scheelhaase waited and found Hull splitting the Cincinnati defense down the middle of the field for a 23-yard gain and a first down en route to a field goal by Taylor Zalewski.
“Even that third-and-19 play, we knew we would get it,’’ Hull said. “We weren’t thinking that the penalty sucked and it was going to cost us.
“We were ready to get after it and get that first down. That belief and passion is driving our offense right now.’’
That confidence starts with new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who saw 11 different receivers catch passes and nine different players carry the ball on run plays. The veteran coach didn’t know exactly how many different formations the Illini used against a Bearcats defense, that had held the Purdue Boilermakers to 7 points and 226 yards a week earlier.
“I know at one point, we were up to 20,’’ he said. “We like to do some different things.’’
And running that offense is very studious senior quarterback. On Saturday, Scheelhaase was 26-of-37 for 312 yards and four touchdowns and he also had 33 rushing yards on eight carries.
“Coach Cubit puts a lot on the quarterback and I accept that with open arms,’’ said Scheelhaase, who has thrown for 727 yards and six touchdowns in the first two games, already surpassing last year’s total of four touchdown passes. “I think everyone looks forward to the different stuff we will do every week.
“For us, it’s fun, but for a defensive coordinator, it puts a lot of pressure on them and makes them think.’’
The Fighting Illini, who finished with 522 yards of total offense, also found a little bit of a running game against the Bearcats. Early on, Illinois used its wide receivers to get wide on Cincinnati and then in the fourth quarter, Donovonn Young pounded the ball between the tackles on a seven-play, 68-yard scoring drive that put the final touches on a big victory.
“I think the thing that made it feel a lot better (than last week) was that we finished the game the way we wanted to,’’ Hull said. “That was by grinding the ball out. This offense is very unselfish. We are happy to see touchdowns being scored, no matter who scores them.’’
And while the offense had another big game, the Illinois defense also had several big plays, including a fourth down stop with 7:55 left in the third quarter.
Cincinnati quarterback Munchie Legaux attempted to dive into the end zone on a fourth-and-goal play from the Illinois 1, on second effort Legaux was originally credited with a touchdown. But after a replay review, the video showed that Illinois defensive back Earnest Thomas had forced a fumble just outside of the end zone. And while Cincinnati’s Chris Moore recovered the fumble in the end zone, college rules state that only the player fumbling the ball can advance it for a touchdown.
“I didn’t think he was in and I was going to challenge it, if it wasn’t reviewed,’’ Beckman said. “I thought (Earnest) came in there and forced the ball out.’’
Illinois had gotten the stop and their 21-10 lead was still in tact.
“That was huge,’’ said Illinois senior linebacker Jonathan Brown, who had a team-high 14 tackles. “That would have brought the game within four points, but I’m proud of my guys, because we stood up and made the play.’’
Illinois turned the momentum in a 99-yard scoring drive.
“When we needed the stop by the defense, we got it,’’ Scheelhaase said. “When we needed a big drive by the offense, that’s exactly what we got.
“We had guys stepping up at those crucial moments and that’s great to see.’’
Most people called it a statement victory for Illinois, which was 2-10 in the first season under Beckman. How did he see it?
“This isn’t about Tim Beckman,’’ he said. “This win was about our players.’’
And they found plenty of motivation from some pregame predictions.
“No one really gives us a chance,’’ said Brown, who read one prediction that had Cincinnati beat Illinois 51-20. “That’s nothing new here. I’ve been dealing with it all my four years here, and that’s something we work hard every day trying to change.’’
The players and their coach said this was just the second game of their season. Next week, Illinois will get another chance to make a statement as they face the Washington Huskies in a 5 p.m. game at Chicago’s Solidier Field.
“This win feels spectacular and that’s what we will focus on today,’’ Hull said. “(Today), we will focus on Washington and try to keep the momentum going.’’
One negative on Saturday was the horrific left leg injury suffered by Legaux in the fourth quarter. The senior passed for 237 yards and ran for 52 in the contest. No official details on his injury were released by the University of Cincinnati.