BY CHAD DARE
Falling behind and getting trounced was a common sight with the Illinois football program a year ago.
So when the Washington Huskies scored on their first three possessions of the second half, taking a 31-10 lead, you could almost sense the Illini fans were getting ready for another rout.
Instead, the 47,312 at Soldier Field in Chicago saw the fight return to the Fighting Illini football program.
Illinois (2-1) rallied, closing with 31-24 with nine minutes left, but Washington, rated No. 19, held on for a 34-24 victory. It was the Huskies first non-conference road victory since 2007.
"I was proud of the way the team competed for four quarters,'' Illinois coach Tim Beckman said.
The Illinois players echoed the sentiments of their coach.
"Last year, if we got down early in the game or right after halftime like we did today, we usually packed it in,'' said Illinois junior defensive tackle Austin Teitsma. "But, we've got great leadership on the team in JB (Jonathan Brown), Houston Bates, Tim Kynard. Those guys are pulling us together.
"I'm disappointed in the loss, but I'm also pumped because I'm seeing a change in our team.''
Brown, who finished with a game-high 15 tackles, admitted his team looked differently this year against a nationally-ranked squad like Washington.
"I was proud of the way the guys stood up and fought all the way to the end,'' said Brown. "They definitely showed heart. With a performance like that you can find the things that you need to improve on.''
And the No. 1 thing that the Illinois defense will need to improve this season — tackling.
"Defensively, we did not slow them down,'' said Beckman as the Washington offense rolled up 615 yards of total offense. "Tackling was a major concern. We have to tackle better when we are playing a team that is a top-20 football team.''
The missed tackles not only allowed the Huskies (2-0) to roll up plenty of yardage, but they were also a very impressive 10-of-16 in third-down conversions.
"That comes with practice and wrapping up. That's what defensive players do, it's fundamentals,'' said Illinois junior Houston Bates, who had eight tackles and one forced fumble. "We had our opportunities. When we needed to make plays, we didn't make them.
"It's two or three plays that could have changed the end of the game, but we didn't make them.''
They plays that stood out to Bates were a couple of big third-down conversions on scoring drives in the third quarter as Washington built its 31-10 lead.
"Those guys were pretty good, and they were pretty fast,'' Brown said. "We missed tackles and they made plays.''
But, those were not the only plays that could have made a difference in the Chicago Homecoming game for Illinois.
On three occasions in the first half, the Illini moved the ball inside of the Huskies 25-yard line. But those three drives resulted in a punt, a missed 41-yard field goal and a successful 40-yard field goal by Taylor Zalewski.
"You saw last week with Cincinnati that we were able to put the pressure on them early, but today we felt like we left points out there in the first half,'' said Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who passed for 156 yards on 9-of-25 passing. "In the second half when we started putting points up, so it was good to see positive results.
"We're a team that wants to put the pressure on them early, put the pedal to the metal, and really force the other team to make adjustments.''
Instead, it was Washington with the 1-2 punch of quarterback Keith Price and running back Bishop Sankey that was firing on all cylinders after a rough first quarter.
The Huskies outgained the Illini 434-90 after Zalewski's missed 41-yard field goal until Washington had a 31-10 lead with 3:32 left in the third quarter.
"We were stubbing ourselves in the foot on our own toes, we were shooting ourselves in the foot with just penalties that we can fix,'' said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, whose team called for nine penalties for 84 yards in the first half. "It kept pushing us back. It was like two steps forward and one step back.''
But starting the second half, Washington ran seven consecutive running plays, capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Sankey to take a 17-3 lead. Sankey, a junior running back, finished with a career-high 208 yards on 35 carries.
"In the second half, we just ran the football better,'' said Sarkisian, whose team had 206 rushing yards in the second half. "I thought our conditioning showed again.
"Bishop Sankey was a warrior tonight.''
Illinois started its comeback when Scheelhaase hit Ryan Lankford for a 72-yard scoring strike.
"We knew we could win the game,'' said Lankford, who finished with 100 yard receiving on three receptions. "We all know that we left points out there. With the way the score ended, we knew we could have possibly came out on top.''
And the comeback showed Lankford something.
"That was positive to see that guys didn't give up, they didn't give in,'' he said. "We knew that we could still continue to make plays.''
Illinois pulled within 31-24 on freshman Aaron Bailey's 10-yard touchdown run with 9 minutes, 10 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Earlier in that drive, the Illini used a trick play with Bailey, as he was part of a reverse pass from Miles Osei to Matt Lacosse for 35 yards.
"We know what Aaron Bailey can become,'' Beckman said. "I thought it was a great call by Cubes (Bill Cubit).''
Washington came back with an 11-play, 54-yard drive that culminated with a 32-yard field goal by Travis Coons to seal the victory for the Huskies.
"I believe in this football team. I believe in our football players. And I believe in our coaching staff,'' Beckman said. "You can see the strides we've made on offense and defense.''
Illinois will now get a week off before hosting the Miami of Ohio RedHawks on Saturday, Sept. 28 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. Kickoff time for that game is still to be determined.