Five plays into Saturday night's Soldier Field showdown against No. 19 Washington, Illinois had a chance to make a statement.
On third-and-10 from the Huskies' 43, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase sailed a pass down the left sideline toward receiver Steve Hull, who turned and contorted his body as he watched the ball sail through his hands.
Yes, the Illini dropped the ball.
"It was definitely there," Scheelhaase said. "But in situations like that, there are going to be plays missed here and there. We can't afford that. We have to capitalize when the opportunity is there."
Blown opportunities kept the Illini from grabbing momentum. Instead, they walked off the home field of the Bears wondering what could have been.
True, Illinois (2-1) seemed to answer every big play from Washington (2-0) in the second half. But those missed opportunities in the first half, coupled with poor tackling on defense, came back to haunt the Illini in a 34-24 loss.
"That was a winnable game for us," Scheelhaase said.
Illinois seemed poise to prove last week's 45-17 thumping of Cincinnati was no fluke.
But again, missed opportunities were Illinois' downfall. On the drive of the Hull drop, the Illini marched down to Washington's 27-yard line. But on third-and-9, Scheelhaase was sacked out field goal range.
The Illini's third drive, which came after defensive lineman Austin Teitsma caused Huskies running back Dwayne Washington to fumble and Eric Finney recovered, should have resulted in at least a field goal. But kicker Taylor Zalewski pulled a 41-yard attempt wide right.
The defense came up with another fumble recovery that gave Illini field position in Washington territory, but that drive ended with Scheelhaase being sacked.
"We just didn't make plays when we needed to," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. "We left some points out on the field early."
All that being said, Illinois still had its moments on offense.
The Illini fell behind 31-10 late in the third quarter but mounted a furious comeback. Scheelhaase started to get the Washington defense on its heels with his running then hit the Huskies with a 72-yard touchdown hookup to Ryan Lankford on deep post. But Scheelhaase finished the game completing just 9 of 25 passes for 156 yards and was sacked four times in the first half.
Illinois pulled to within 31-24 on freshman quarterback Aaron Bailey's 10-yard touchdown sprint with 9 minutes, 10 seconds left. A trick play set up his score as receiver Miles Osei took a reverse and then fired a left-handed pass to tight end Matt LaCosse for a 35-yard gain.
But Washington held on as Travis Coons' 32-yard field goal with less than 5 minutes remaining gave the Huskies a much-needed 10-point cushion.
The Illini defense surrendered 615 total offensive yards to the Huskies.
"This team did meet a challenge at halftime, and offensively we stepped up," Beckman said. "Defensively, we got dragged down a little bit and didn't tackle."
At least the Illini have next weekend off to get things straight.