CHAMPAIGN - Illinois made a statement Saturday, starting the season with two 40-plus point efforts after taking down Cincinnati 45-17, as six different Illini recorded a touchdown for the day. Illinois' defense shut down Cincinnati from the start, holding the Bearcats to less than 20 points for only the second time in their last 18 games.
Illinois racked up 522 yards of total offense against Cincinnati, showcasing new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's effect on the team. Cincinnati nearly matched the Illini's offensive output with 456 yards, but Illinois converted 9-of-15 third downs while holding Cincinnati to 3-of-13 on third down conversions and 0-of-2 on fourth downs.
"Bill Cubit has always been successful and has always done a great job with our offense," head coach Tim Beckman said. "It's still about him putting our players in position and making plays. We just call the plays, the players are the ones who run the plays. Bill is an outstanding offensive mind, there's no question. That's why I brought him here. He's the best I've been coaching against or been around."
"The beautiful thing is football is all the same," wide receiver Ryan Lankford said about the new playbook. "Of course there's different concepts and different ideas that go down, but coming into another offense, being a senior, understanding different offenses has been easier to make the transition."
Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase - coming off of a stellar 416-yard opening game against Southern Illinois - launched a 48-yard bomb to sophomore Josh Ferguson to give Illinois the first score of the game with 5:45 left in the first quarter.
On the ensuing drive, Cincinnati quarterback Munchie LeGaux's pass was intercepted by redshirt-freshman Taylor Barton, his first career pick, but the Illini couldn't do anything with it. When the teams traded punts, Illinois came out ahead thanks to a 26-yard return by V'Angelo Bentley that gave the Orange and Blue possession near midfield.
A few plays later, Scheelhaase handed off to Lankford on an end-around and good blocking gave Lankford a clear path to the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown and a 14-0 Illinois lead just minutes into the second quarter.
The Illini defense got the ball right back, forcing a three-and-out, and Scheelhaase went back to work, engineering a 10-play, 76-yard drive. He went 5-for-5 on the drive, capping it with a 23-yard scoring strike to a wide-open Evan Wilson, as Illinois blew the game open 21-0 with 7:04 left in the first half.
Illinois' defense was tested during the last minute before the half, and Cincinnati was able to get on the board before halftime with sophomore Max Morrison's 1-yard touchdown run to finish an exhausting 14-play, 69-yard drive that cut Illinois' lead to 21-7 at the break.
Cincinnati took advantage of a short Illini punt with a 37-yard field goal to cut Illinois' lead to 21-10 within the first five minutes of the third quarter. Then the Bearcats forced a three-and-out by the Illini from UI's 25 yard line, but this time, Justin DuVernois boomed it 53 yards and Cincinnati took over at its own 33.
LeGaux hit Morrison with a 32-yard strike and an unnecessary roughness penalty put the Bearcats on the Illinois four yard line. But the Illini defense stiffened, leading to fourth-and-goal from the one. LeGaux ran left but was met by a slew of defenders. The official on the goal line signaled touchdown, but a long review resulted in the apparent Bearcat touchdown being called back after Illini junior Earnest Thomas caused LeGaux to fumble the ball before the goal line. Because it was fourth down and another Cincinnati player recovered the ball in the end zone, the possession was awarded to Illinois on the 1-yard line.