CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Illinois had been waiting almost three weeks for injured quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to play again.
When he took the Memorial Stadium field Saturday and led the Illini to an early 7-0 lead over Louisiana Tech, it looked like the leader of Illinois' attack was back.
But by the end of the first quarter Scheelhaase was back on the bench, the Illini had turned the ball over three times and trailed by a pair of touchdowns on their way to a stunning 52-24 loss to the Bulldogs (3-0). Illinois turned the ball over six times in all and at times appeared powerless to stop Louisiana Tech's quick-strike offense.
"Regardless of who you're playing you're not going to win football games if you turn the football over and give up big strikes," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. "I credit Louisiana Tech — I think Louisiana Tech's got a good football team. But we still have to play much better."
Now the Illini (2-2) have a week to figure out who runs the offense and how to shore up the defense before conference play starts next weekend against Penn State.
"The Big Ten starts next week, and yes, we've got to be able to make a lot of strides," he said, declining to hint at who might start at quarterback. "We'll make a decision as we go into that game against Penn state."
Louisiana Tech came to Illinois Saturday averaging 56 points a game. It's safe to say Bulldogs don't need much help finding the scoreboard.
They got it anyway, from an Illinois team that couldn't hold onto the ball.
"It was kind of a strange football game. A little sloppy, I think they had six turnovers, we had three," Bulldog coach Sonny Dykes said. "Just it was kind of one of those things, we were fortunate to get a couple of big plays and they turned the tide of the game."
The Bulldogs led 21-7 at the end of the first quarter on Illinois' first three turnovers, and dominated the Illini, never trailing again.
Bulldog quarterback Colby Cameron finished 15-22 for 284 yards and four touchdowns. His favorite target was Quinton Patton who caught six balls for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
Cameron and Patton connected on a pair of early third-quarter touchdowns that put the Bulldogs up for good, 35-17.
Scheelhaase was ineffective and left the game in the first quarter. Reilly O'Toole was 19 of 25 for 120 yards in his place.
The Bulldog defense sacked Illinois' quarterbacks five times.
Illinois climbed back into the game in the second quarter, turning a 21-7 deficit to a manageable 21-17 while holding the Bulldogs to three yards of offense.