After a 17-14 win over Arizona State last fall, the Sun Devils circled this game on their schedule as a chance for redemption. Todd Graham and his explosive Arizona State offense got their redemption…and then some.
Saturday’s thrashing of Illinois is not what Tim Beckman expected when he made his first trip outside of Memorial Stadium. The Illini had a prime opportunity to prove that they were one of the favorites for the Leaders’ Division Title. After an unexpected loss at Oregon State, Wisconsin seems to be much less explosive this year after having one of the nation’s top scoring offenses last season. Indiana is 2-0 but don’t figure to be talented, or deep enough to contend for the division title. Purdue looked strong against Notre Dame but many experts are not quite sure how talented this team actually is. Ohio State figures to be the best team in the division but with its one-year bowl ban this division is wide open. Illinois looked promising after a convincing win over a very talented Western Michigan team. However, after this loss to the Sun Devils, it seems that many fans may have lost that recently gained confidence.
As the Illini marched onto the field for Saturday’s game, fans from all over loved the uniform combination Tim Beckman’s squad had decided to wear. The blue face-mask was a very unexpected and fantastic change to their normal helmets. The blue pants and white top combination was one of the sharpest looking uniforms I had seen in years. All of the excitement over these cool uniforms was quickly wiped away after Arizona State’s first drive.
Arizona State dominated the tempo from the opening whistle. Starting quarterback Taylor Kelly chucked the ball around as if the offense was playing on air. For a team whose strength was supposed to be its defense, the Illini looked unprepared and flat. Running back DJ Foster ran for what seemed like an eternity before an Illini defender was able to bring him down. The aspect of the defense that may be most upsetting to Illini fans is that Arizona State dominated without using a big playbook. Arizona State seemed to attack the flats on a regular basis either via a swing pass to DJ Foster or a quick wide receiver screen. The Illini defense looked slow and it took about 10 yards before this supposedly dominating defense could finally take down the ball carrier.
Players with NFL level caliber talent such as Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan needed to step up and provide leadership to this defense to stop the bleeding…but it never happened. During a pressing time of the game, like the first quarter, these top caliber players needed to encourage their teammates and light a fire beneath the defense. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks will surely address that during practice this week as the Illini prepare for Charleston Southern.
As flat as the defense played all night, the offense looked just as slow and unprepared. A lone bright spot of the night was Josh Ferguson, who ran hard and fought for extra yards, regardless of the score. Riley O’Toole and Miles Osei both struggled as they played in the void of starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse.
Coach Beckman announced Saturday afternoon that Scheelhasse would be unavailable for the game. My question is, why? Beckman told ESPN reporters that Scheelhasse was at about 80 percent at kickoff. With a prime opportunity to show the whole country that Illinois football is on the upswing, why can’t the team captain and leader play at 80 percent? I understand it’s a long season and Illini fans want him healthy for conference play, but look at the upcoming game. Charleston Southern did not win a game last year. Playing a winless team from the Big South should not be a tight game. I’d be surprised if this game is decided by less than 28 points. Just give Nathan a chance to play and see how his ankle responds. If he can’t do what he normally can then take him out and play O’Toole and Osei the rest of the game and give Nathan the day off next weekend, when the Illini most likely will not need him. It was evident that this team cannot win without Scheelhasse, and Illini fans better hope that his ankle is back to 100% by the time conference play starts.
Next week should provide the Illini with a chance to redeem themselves and get healthy. Look for Beckman to once again play conservative next week as a talented and underrated Louisiana Tech team invades Memorial Stadium under the lights the following week. A decisive win over Charleston Southern is just what Illinois needs to regain its confidence. Let’s see if they can do it.
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