Illini, Beckman survive Broncos for win, 24-7
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Ron Zook lost his job at Illinois after a six-game losing streak, during which it seemed that if things could go wrong they would.
Just as it felt like things might be turning against his replacement on Saturday, a fourth-quarter interception returned for a touchdown delivered a 24-7 win for the Illini and their new coach, Tim Beckman, over Western Michigan in the season opener for both teams.
After leading 17-0, Illinois had seen the Broncos cut that lead to 17-7 and they were moving again. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was out with an ankle injury, and the Illini were feeling the pressure of a make-or-break moment, said linebacker Ashante Williams said.
"It was key — the coaches came out right before that drive and said 'This is the key drive in the game,'" the senior said. "They had already scored in the series before that and if they would have scored again that basically would have shifted the momentum to their side."
Williams made sure that didn't happen, picking off Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder and returning it 60 yards for a touchdown.
Athletic director Mike Thomas gave Beckman the game ball, but the new coach deflected the credit to his team for finding a way to hold on.
"Mike Thomas was gracious enough to give me the game ball, but this was not my game ball," Beckman said. "This is the team's game ball. That game ball will sit right there, we'll get it framed. This is the first victory of the new era."
The Broncos, a year after losing a 23-20 heartbreaker at Illinois, struggled to get into the game. Carder was intercepted three times.
"Offensively was probably the biggest disappointment," coach Bill Cubit said. "That we just didn't execute at all. We just played really poorly."
Scheelhaase left the game with just over seven minutes left in the third quarter, just after Donald Celiscar intercepted him in the Bronco end zone as the Illini tried to extend their 17-0 lead. As officials reviewed the call — they initially said Celiscar was out of bounds — Scheelhaase limped noticeably and minutes later was done, sitting on a sideline trainer's table with his ankle iced.
Scheelhaase didn't speak to reporters after the game and Beckman offered few details about the injury, but said he suspects the junior quarterback will play next Saturday at Arizona State.
"Yeah, it was his ankle and we'll continue to evaluate," the coach said. "But you all know Nathan Scheelhaase and he will do whatever he can to make sure he's prepared and ready for next week."
The 20-plus minutes Illinois played without him gave Beckman a look at the limits of his offense without the third-year starter.
Before Scheelhaase left, the Illini had close to 240 yards of offense. They finished with 248 total yards.
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