On Saturday, September 7th, 2013, the Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois knocked off double-digit favorite Cincinnati 45-17. The Bearcats were coming off a 42-7 blowout of Purdue, while Illinois barely escaped its opener with a 42-34 victory over Southern Illinois that came down to the last 40 seconds of regulation. This Saturday’s game wasn’t near as much of a nail-biter, with Illinois in command for most of the afternoon thanks to the Illini taking control on offense and a number of Cincinnati mistakes including five false starts due to crowd noise from the Block I (okay, I may be biased here, but for the sake of the article, that’s what we’re going to attribute it to).
Illinois’s strong offensive attack in this game came thanks to a running game improved from Week One. After rushing for a meager 49 yards against SIU, the Illini gained 210 yards on the ground against Cincinnati. This was due to a combination of more varied playcalling involving wideout end-arounds and an improvement by Donovonn Young in finding and hitting holes. Young rushed for a team-high 64 yards, while receivers Ryan Lankford and Martize Barr added a combined 70. Nathan Scheelhaase continued his excellent start to the 2013 season, completeing 26 of 37 attempts for 312 yards, including 102 in the first quarter, and 4 touchdowns with no interceptions and spreading the ball around, connecting with 11 different receivers. Scheelhaase also added 33 rushing yards while scrambling when no receivers were open. Touted as Illinois’s next Heisman winner coming out of Kansas City as a freshman, Scheelhaase is finally showing the potential that created that hype.
The Illini defense was pretty much just as shaky as it was against SIU in this one, except when it counted, stuffing Cincinnati quarterback Munchie Legaux out of the end zone on a fourth-and-goal play that required a lengthy official review, and forcing the Bearcats to settle for a field goal after another drive went deep into Illinois territory. The secondary again relied on drops by the opposing receivers and was scorched when passes were caught against them.
The most improved player this week for Illinois would have to be junior wide receiver Martize Barr. After looking as though he couldn’t catch a cold in a bucket against Southern Illinois, Barr contributed a team-high 5 receptions and 72 yards with a touchdown to go along with his 24 rushing yards.
As with every win, there are things about this game to be encouraged about, and things that need to be addressed for next week. Even in a blowout, Illinois looked very much like a team that will get beaten handily by Big Ten schools. One thing is for certain: This team will not be satisfied with matching last season’s win total by the second game of the year. They will be working hard to improve their weaknesses in preparation for Washington next Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago. For now, though, the Fighting Illini are still undefeated and tied for the best record in the nation.