CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Pressed into action against Arizona State a week earlier, backup quarterback Reilly O’Toole delivered a 54-yard game that hamstrung the Illinois offense in a blowout loss. With starter Nathan Scheelhaase still hobbled by a sprained ankle, O’Toole was given a chance to rebound Saturday. The sophomore made the most of it.
O’Toole was 26 of 31 for 333 yards and five touchdowns in a 44-0 yawner for Illinois (2-1) over Charleston Southern (0-3), an FCS school playing its first game against a Big Ten team.
O’Toole sprayed the ball around, hitting four different receivers for touchdowns. Ryan Lankford caught two of them, rolling up 97 yards on seven catches to go with them, and Justin Hardee caught five balls for 99 yards.
“We had guys running great routes and they were open, so it makes the game a lot more fun just pitching and catching,” O’Toole said, then critiquing his one mistake, an interception thrown too short into the Buccaneer end zone. “Obviously that one interception, it’s just important to get the ball out deeper in the corner. Obviously you can get better week to week. There were a couple plays here and there but that was one of the mistakes I had.”
The game was a relief for Illinois’ defense, too. A week after giving up 510 yards at Arizona State in a 45-14 loss, Illinois held the Buccaneers’ option to 125 yards and recorded the first Illinois shutout since a 2007 win over Western Illinois.
“It doesn’t matter who you play, it’s all about every man on defense doing their job, hustling and being accountable,” defensive end Michael Buchanan said.
Charleston Southern coach Jay Mills said his players, even in a lopsided loss, gained experience in playing a team like Illinois.
“Every kid that’s ever played football dreamed of playing for schools like this,” he said of Illinois. “The next best thing is playing against them. … We don’t care if people are cheering against us, we just like however many thousands are yelling.”
The Illini were missing a handful of starters who were injured, including quarterback Scheelhaase, who has missed two games with a sprained ankle.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman didn’t directly address whether Scheelhaase will play next week against Louisiana Tech, but O’Toole said he thought the junior could have played against Charleston Southern if needed.
O’Toole connected with Lankford twice in the first quarter for short touchdowns that gave the Illini a 13-0 lead. But the most important play of the game for the Illini might have come from freshman running back Dami Ayoola.
Facing a fourth-and-1 at the Charleston Southern 28, the 5-10, 205-pound Ayoola got the ball and quickly pushed into the center of the Buccaneer line for the first down. But no one brought him down, and Ayoola popped out of the pile stumbling but still on his feet.
He straightened himself out and sprinted to the end zone for a touchdown.
With the extra point Illinois had a 20-0 lead that, even with 2:06 left to play in the first half, looked comfortable. The Buccaneers have yet to score more than 14 points in a game this season.
Beckman said the second and third effort that made Ayoola’s run has been a part of his game since he arrived on campus.
“He runs with great passion when he runs the football. He’s not a quitter,” Beckman said. “He got hit by a couple guys, he kept his feet moving. Got that first down and then finished it up.”
Ayoola finished with eight carries for a game-high 55 yards. His playing time was boosted by the absence of one of Illinois’ starting backs, Josh Ferguson, who missed the game with a concussion.
Even with Scheelhaase out, Illinois’ defense came into Saturday’s game knowing it was the primary problem in last week’s loss at Arizona State. Players said they had trouble reading the play calls from the sideline, and the Sun Devils built a 28-0 halftime edge before going on to win 45-14.
But Charleston Southern’s option offense seldom troubled the Illini defense Saturday.
The more limited Buccaneers managed just 125 yards of offense against the Illini. A rotating cast of quarterbacks were a combined 5 of 14 for 29 yards, including an early interception that set up Illinois’ first touchdown.
Freshman linebacker Mason Monheim intercepted Derek Hatcher deep in Buccaneer territory and returned the pass to the 7-yard line. Three plays later O’Toole hit Lankford from 4 yards out.
Beckman said contributions from freshmen like Monheim and Ayoola are particularly important for an Illinois team that isn’t deep to begin with and is now fighting injuries.
“It’s about a bunch of young players coming in and playing. We do not have a bunch of depth,” Beckman said. “If you look at our two-deep there’s 23 freshman and sophomores on the two-deep.”
Charleston Southern really threatened only once.
Illinois led 13-0 midway through the second quarter when Buccaneers backup quarterback Briar Van Brunt kept the ball on the option and broke away from the Illinois defense for a 54-yard gain. V’Angelo Bentley and Justin Green caught him from behind at the Illinois 38.
But the Buccaneers’ first trip into Illini territory didn’t last long. Two plays that went nowhere and a penalty for having 12 players on the field left Charleston Southern with a third-and-15 at the Illini 43. Quarterback Derek Hatcher’s wobbly floater was too high for Corvaughn Archie to pull down, and the Buccaneers were forced to punt.
Illinois went into the game missing three starters on each side of the ball.
In addition to Scheelhaase and Ferguson, center Graham Pocic was held out with a leg injury. On defense, Illinois was missing safeties Steve Hull and Suppo Sanni and linebacker Houston Bates.
The Illini host Louisiana Tech next Saturday, while Charleston Southern will try again for its first win against Shorter, a Division II school.
(© 2012 by STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited.)