CHAMPAIGN – When you’re a program on the mend like Illinois, you learn not to take days like Saturday for granted.
It contained pristine weather, a familial feel thanks to dads’ weekend, and an efficient 50-14 victory over Miami of Ohio to top it off.
Notably absent were unpleasant surprises and heart-stopping comebacks – as there were in Week 1 against another expected walkover, Southern Illinois.
Miami (0-4) may not have been much of a stumbling block for Illinois (3-1), but it was only last season that Big Ten opponents were saying that about the Illini. And that in itself is noteworthy.
The offense continued its ascent back to legitimacy with 601 total yards, a positive sign as the Illini gear up to open Big Ten play Saturday at Nebraska.
And if nothing else, it was a scrapbook performance for the Illini’s trio of tight ends. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase fired five touchdown passes, four to the tight ends. Illinois had only three touchdown receptions at that position all of last season. Matt LaCosse hauled in two scores, while Evan Wilson and Jon Davis each added one.
“They’re not just guys that can only run 5-yard routes or have little dump passes,” Scheelhaase said. “They’re guys that can make plays downfield, athletic guys that can move around and be in different positions.”
Wilson had the catch of the day, stretching his 6-foot-6 frame as far as it could in the back of the end zone to bring in a high pass for an 8-yard score while keeping his feet inbounds.
“I thought he was going to hit his head on the upright,” coach Tim Beckman said. “He’s a big target. I think I may have even completed that one.”
And LaCosse was able to showcase a little bit of his wiggle, taking in three catches for 68 yards, including a 45-yard score.
“We’re a selfless group,” LaCosse said. “It’s the closest group I’ve had in my 3 years here. We don’t care who gets the ball, and I think that makes us so much more dynamic in what we can do.”
The Redhawks are not the stoutest of defensive units – they entered Saturday with the 120th-ranked defense nationally in yards allowed. But integrating the tight ends into the passing game is a necessary step for the Illini to compete in the Big Ten with its still-developing defense, which allowed 250 yards to the worst-ranked offense in the country.
If the Illini plan on being in a lot of shootouts, it’s best to bring as many weapons as possible.
“It takes the pressure off the wideouts, it takes pressure off the quarterback,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “I’ve been in situations where we had tight ends hurt or the tight ends weren’t producing and you’re just relying on wideouts ... that’s really hard to continually run an offense because they’re going to eventually shut you down.”