The Commercial-News, Danville, IL


September 16, 2012

Illinois gets healthy in victory

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois coach Tim Beckman has said all week that his goal was to make his football team better.

And for him, that means getting his younger players on the field.

On Saturday afternoon, the Fighting Illini had 23 first-year players get on the field as Illinois rolled over Charleston Southern 44-0.

“We don’t have a bunch of depth,’’ Beckman said. “If you look at our two-deep, there are 23 freshmen and sophomores on our two-deep. We are not a very veteran-laden team other than a couple senior starters.

“As a coach, you have to give them game experience. Because there is no way they are going to get better unless you get them involved in games.’’

In all, the Fighting Illini, which improved to 2-1, had 39 freshmen or sophomores play against the Buccaneers, an NCAA FCS school, which lost its 15 straight game.

“That’s what this program is going to need, and that’s always what it’s going to be,’’ Beckman said. “It’s going to be about a lot of young players coming in and playing.

“We are going to play young players … We want players that want to come in and play, not sit and watch.’’

One of the 39 underclassmen on Saturday was sophomore quarterback Reilly O’Toole.

The Wheaton-Warrenville-South product had a career day for the Illini, completing 26-of-31 passes for 333 yards and five touchdowns to four different receivers.

“I just executed, it’s as simple as that,’’ said O’Toole, who was 10-of-14 for 54 yards in last week’s 45-14 loss at Arizona State. “We had guys running great routes and they were open, so it makes the game a lot more fun just pitching and catching,”

And while he set a school record with a .839 completion percentage, O’Toole was quick to point out that he was far from perfect.

The sophomore admitted he made a mistake with a second quarter interception.

“That’s what you expect, you expect to complete passes or throw the ball away,’’ he said. “I had one bad pass in the red zone.

“I should have slid my line (protection) on that play and that would have given me a little more time to make a good pass.’’

And while the experience that O’Toole gained the past two weeks is invaluable, Beckman knows that it’s because junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is out with an ankle injury.

“I’m proud of the way he came in, and he performed,’’ Beckman said. “Our offensive staff did a good job of enabling him to hit some people that were open.’’

O’Toole isn’t the only Illini player that got an opportunity on Saturday because of an injury.

Joining Scheelhaase on the sidelines on Saturday were starting running back Josh Ferguson, center Graham Pocic and linebacker Houston Bates.

“It’s challenging,’’ Beckman said. “You’ve got young men that are injured. They don’t want to be injured. No one wants to be injured. It’s one of those things that you have adapt through it and you have to push your young players to perform.’’

And Illinois got some very impressive performances from freshmen.

Running back Dami Ayoola had a career-high 55 yards and a nifty 28-yard touchdown run on a fourth-down play in the second quarter.

“He got hit by a couple of guys, kept his feet moving, got that first down and finished it up,’’ Beckman said. “That is the capabilities of Ayoola.’’

And at linebacker, Mason Monheim got the start in just his three collegiate football game.

He made his presence known on the seventh play of the contest when he picked off a pass by Charleston Southern’s Derek Hatcher. Monheim, who also had five tackles, returned it to the Buccaneers 7 setting up O’Toole’s first touchdown pass of 4 yards to Ryan Lankford.

“We need these young guys to step up and be accountable,’’ said Illinois senior Ashante Williams. “This game was a confidence boost, a guy like Mason making a lot of plays, that helps build his confidence as we get prepared each and every week for tougher and harder teams.

“When we hit the Big Ten, he will have a full head of steam knowing that he had this experience.’’

And Monheim was part of an Illinois defense that rebounded from last week’s debacle at Arizona State, allowing 510 yards, to get a shutout for the first time since beating Western Illinois 21-0 in 2007.

“It was big, especially with the way we played last week as a defense,’’ Williams said. “We beat ourselves up this week, we felt like the bulk of the points and the loss last week was our fault.’’

Illinois will continue its three-game homestand next Saturday when the Fighting Illini host the Louisiana Tech Bullogs, a 56-37 winner over Rice on Saturday night.

Kickoff next week at Memorial Stadium is set for 7 p.m.

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