Trip to Soldier Field not all a loss for Illini
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Washington's Jesse Callier outruns the Illinois defense during the second half Saturday night at Soldier Field.
Reminding citizens of Chicago there still is a second Big Ten team in this state probably was a good idea for the University of Illinois.
But Saturday's Illini-Washington battle at Soldier Field didn't really work as a big-city showcase. There wasn't a ton of upset potential, either.
From the moment the teams walked onto the field, the most relevant question seemed to be whether Illinois could maintain some respectability against the No. 19 Huskies, display any sign of hope for the Tim Beckman era.
In that regard, the trip to Chicago was a success. Illinois has a long, long way to go on defense -- Washington piled up 615 yards -- but the visitors from Champaign hung around before finally losing 34-24.
And especially for the players from the Chicago area, it was nice to feel some orange-clad love from the state's largest metropolis.
"Coming into Chicago, we weren't sure if we would have the same kind of fan base we have in Champaign," said junior defensive tackle Austin Teitsma, from Glenbard South. "They came hard-core for us. That was awesome."
Anyone who grew up in the area knows Chicago fan interest runs hot and cold with the Illini. The schedules are made years in advance, so it was just a coincidence that Illinois' first home game at Soldier Field since 1994 came at a time when Northwestern and Northern Illinois are riding high, while the Illini are carrying low expectations from last year's 2-10 season.
"It's great to win fans over everywhere -- whether we're in Chicago, whether we're in Champaign, whether we're out in Happy Valley," quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. "There's Illini faithful everywhere. If we can show them what we're all about and why we're worth cheering for, that's great."
In the first half, the Illini trailed just 10-3 despite being outgained by a 3-1 margin. So that was one minor victory.
But Washington needed less than two minutes to drive 75 yards and stretch it to 17-3 at the start of the third quarter.
Illinois' best offensive play was a 72-yard bomb from Scheelhaase to Ryan Lankford in the third quarter. The bad news: Both players are seniors who won't be on campus much longer.
Illinois managed another big hit with a double-reverse pass. Former quarterback Miles Osei (another senior) connected with tight end Matt LaCosse (junior) for a 35-yard gain.
That set up a 10-yard dash by designated running quarterback Aaron Bailey (hey, a freshman) and the Illini suddenly were within striking distance, trailing 31-24 with 9:10 remaining.
"I definitely saw a different team out there than it has been in the past," Teitsma said. "Last year, if we got down early in the game or after the half, we'd usually just pack it in. This year we've got great leadership on the team. I'm pumped because I'm definitely seeing a change mentally."
Added LaCosse, a junior from Naperville North: "Hopefully we're showing that we're a competitor now. We're playing decent and, yeah, this loss hurts, but this team isn't going to give up.
"It's one of the better coached teams I've ever been around. Hopefully we can change the tide a little bit."
For most of the game, it was apparent the Illini defense -- which starts two seniors -- needs more athleticism. The young defensive backs tackled more air than jersey when lunging for Washington's quick receivers.
Huskies quarterback Keith Price threw for 342 yards, Bishop Sankey ran for 208, and Kevin Smith added 104 receiving yards.
Still, if the Illini could have gotten one more defensive stop, instead of allowing an 11-play drive and field goal with 4:26 left, there would have been a chance to tie the game.
"The fourth quarter was the loudest fourth quarter I've ever heard." LaCosse said. "It meant the world to me being able to play here."
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