Scheelhaase looks sharp as Illini stomp SIU 35-3
QB shows big-play capability with 54-yard TD pass to Jenkins
CHAMPAIGN Fireworks over Memorial Stadium
for a 35-3 victory against Southern Illinois may have seemed like an overstatement Saturday night, but after last season's 3-9 campaign every triumph is worth a celebration.
"It's hard to win a game," coach Ron Zook said. "A lot of times people don't realize that.
We got better. That's the thing we must continue to do."
Thought Illinois' performance, while solid against its FCS opponent, still left question marks about how it will perform against Big Ten opponents, there were signs of improvement for Illini fans to savor.
After throwing three interceptions last weekend in the opening loss to Missouri
, redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase made good on his promise to not repeat glaring mistakes. Scheelhaase, whose ran just seven times, completed 14 of 18 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
Scheelhaase showed his big-play capabilities with a 54-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Jenkins in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead before the crowd of 52,217.
"In our game plan, I knew I would have to stand in there and take some hits and deliver the football," Scheelhaase said. "(No turnovers) is something that's really important to our team. That's what I focused on all week."
It was a rougher night for Eddie McGee, a former backup quarterback turned wide receiver.
He made his first appearance at quarterback this season, but two of his three passes were interceptions and he left the field for the day with a left ankle sprain
. X-rays at halftime did not reveal a break, Zook said.
Southern Illinois turned McGee's second pick deep in Illinois territory into a 30-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 14-3 with 4 minutes, 58 seconds to go in the half.
Despite the suspension of defensive lineman Michael Buchanan, who was arrested for a DUI a week ago, and a rash of injuries to the secondary, the Illini defense continued its solid play. Southern Illinois' three points were the fewest score on the Illini since they shut out Western Illinois 21-0 on Sept. 8, 2007.
After a 70-7 victory against Quincy in the opener, the Salukis were kept out of the end zone. The Illini held them to just 46 rushing yards and just 1 of 4 passing in the red zone.
Defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who made his first career start, forced a fumble as Southern Illinois threatened to score from the Illinois 10-yard line. Linebacker Ian Thomas recovered the turnover.
"It shows we're coming together as a team and everyone has bought into the system," said Clay Nurse, who moved from defensive end to "bandit" in place of Buchanan. "It's relieving to me and I'm proud of those guys."
On the night the Illini honored Howard Griffith
for his eight-touchdown performance against Southern Illinois 20 years ago, current running back Mikel Leshoure put in another noteworthy performance.
He posted his second straight 100-yard rushing game, finishing with 115 yards on 15 carries. Leshoure scored his second touchdown of the night with an 8-yard run less than three minutes before halftime. He also rushed for a 1-yard score in the first quarter.