CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Illinois had been waiting almost three weeks for injured quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to play again.
When he took the Memorial Stadium field Saturday and led the Illini to an early 7-0 lead over Louisiana Tech, it looked like the leader of Illinois’ attack was back.
But by the end of the first quarter Scheelhaase was back on the bench, the Illini had turned the ball over three times and trailed by a pair of touchdowns on their way to a stunning 52-24 loss to the Bulldogs (3-0). Illinois turned the ball over six times in all and at times appeared powerless to stop Louisiana Tech’s quick-strike offense.
“Regardless of who you’re playing you’re not going to win football games if you turn the football over and give up big strikes,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “I credit Louisiana Tech — I think Louisiana Tech’s got a good football team. But we still have to play much better.”
Now the Illini (2-2) have a week to figure out who runs the offense and how to shore up the defense before conference play starts next weekend against Penn State.
“The Big Ten starts next week, and yes, we’ve got to be able to make a lot of strides,” he said, declining to hint at who might start at quarterback. “We’ll make a decision as we go into that game against Penn state.”
Louisiana Tech came to Illinois Saturday averaging 56 points a game. It’s safe to say Bulldogs don’t need much help finding the scoreboard.
They got it anyway, from an Illinois team that couldn’t hold onto the ball.
“It was kind of a strange football game. A little sloppy, I think they had six turnovers, we had three,” Bulldog coach Sonny Dykes said. “Just it was kind of one of those things, we were fortunate to get a couple of big plays and they turned the tide of the game.”
The Bulldogs led 21-7 at the end of the first quarter on Illinois’ first three turnovers, and dominated the Illini, never trailing again.
Bulldog quarterback Colby Cameron finished 15-22 for 284 yards and four touchdowns. His favorite target was Quinton Patton who caught six balls for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
Cameron and Patton connected on a pair of early third-quarter touchdowns that put the Bulldogs up for good, 35-17.
Scheelhaase was ineffective and left the game in the first quarter. Reilly O’Toole was 19 of 25 for 120 yards in his place.
The Bulldog defense sacked Illinois’ quarterbacks five times.
Illinois climbed back into the game in the second quarter, turning a 21-7 deficit to a manageable 21-17 while holding the Bulldogs to three yards of offense.
The Bulldogs doused whatever spark the Illini felt as they came out of the locker room for the third quarter. And, like everything else Louisiana Tech did, it happened fast.
On the quarter’s second play Cameron hit Patton deep down the right sideline for a 78-yard touchdown and a 28-17 lead that silenced a chilly Memorial Stadium crowd. Patton caught the ball well behind cornerback Terry Hawthorne, one of Illinois’ fastest players. And any helped he might have hoped for from his safeties never materialized.
After a three-and-out from Illinois and O’Toole, the Bulldogs turned in a nine-play, 73-yard drive. Cameron wrapped it up, finding Patton for a 21-yard touchdown.
Patton again ran by Hawthorne as he cut across the middle of the field and caught the ball near the goal line.
“We’ve got to try to create some more pressure on the quarterback and we’ve got to cover better,” Beckman said. “I mean, you saw it.”
For all of Louisiana Tech’s quick-strike offensive ability, one special teams play summed a night of mistakes for Illinois.
Trailing 35-17, the Illini forced a punt and were about to get the ball back, but the punt bounced off the back of blocker Justin Green inside his own 5-yard line and into the end zone. The Bulldogs’ Antonio Mitchum fell on the ball and, at 42-17 with more than four minutes left in the third quarter, the game was over.
“We talked in the past few weeks about finishing and that’s what we worked on tonight. I think we decided to capitalize on that in the third quarter,” Mitchum said.
Illinois’ first three turnovers cost the Illini dearly. All in the first quarter, they staked Louisiana Tech to a 21-7 lead.
The last of those three was, for the Illini, the ugliest.
Scheelhaase ran away from heavy pressure but was caught as he headed for the sideline by linebacker Rufus Porter who punched the ball loose. Defensive end Vontarrius Dora grabbed the fumble.
Tevin King again turned the Illini mistake into points, scrambling in from the 5.
Scheelhaase left the game after his fumble. He hadn’t played since late in the opener against Western Michigan almost three weeks ago after spraining his left ankle.
“We weren’t moving the ball so we decided as coaching staff, myself, that we’d give Reilly a chance,” Beckman said, saying only that Scheelhaase looked rusty.
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