September 9, 2013 at 1:19 am

Matt Charboneau

Big Ten report: Illinois earns second look after 2-0 start

A season ago, Illinois won just two games and lost all eight it played in the Big Ten.

Heading into the 2013 season, the second for head coach Tim Beckman, there wasn’t a lot of hope things would turn around quickly. The non-conference portion of the schedule was certainly going to be no picnic with games against Washington and Cincinnati.

And the conference portion didn’t look a whole lot better, opening with a game at Nebraska followed by home games against Wisconsin and Michigan State.

After barely squeaking out an opening win over Southern Illinois, some wondered if the winning was done in Champaign.

But just two weeks into the season, the Illini have people taking a second look, and more importantly, they are feeling pretty good about themselves.

“When you haven’t had one like this in a long time, you just feel that weight lifted,” tight end Evan Wilson said. “It’s an amazing feeling to have it again.”

That feeling isn’t only because of a 2-0 start to the season. It exists because of a 45-17 victory over Cincinnati, a team that steamrolled Purdue a week ago.

Illinois’ offense was potent once again with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase throwing for 312 yards and four touchdowns, the second straight week he has piled up more than 300 yards through the air. Almost as important for the Illini was the 210 yards they gained on the ground.

Now, Illinois heads into next week’s game against No. 20 Washington with far more believers than it has had in a long time.

“It’s only one game,” Beckman said. “We’ve still got a little ways to go. When I come in on Sundays and watch these tapes, the first thing I look forward to is seeing these kids because they’ve been so outstanding in what they’ve done off the field. Are we where we need to be at yet? No, but I know we’re progressing.”

The win over Cincinnati guarantees nothing, but it was absolutely necessary. Another ugly season could mean the end for Beckman.

That has certainly been predicted and the players have started to take notice. Early in the week, senior linebacker Jonathan Brown handed out newspaper clippings predicting a Cincinnati blowout.

“There might not have been one that said we would win this game,” wide receiver Ryan Lankford said. “And we said to ourselves, ‘OK. It’s go time.’ ”

The result was an impressive, if not surprising, performance from a team expected to be an also-ran this season in the Big Ten. More performances like the one against Cincinnati could change those expectations dramatically.

“As football players, we know what everybody expected of us coming into this season,” safety Earnest Thomas said. “We know what people were saying about what we were going to be and what we weren’t going to be. Anything that can motivate us, we always use that.”

Similar Hoosiers

It didn’t take long for the excitement in Bloomington, Ind., to get squashed.

A week after Kevin Wilson’s team rolled up 73 points in a victory over Indiana State, the Hoosiers reminded everyone that scoring points won’t really be an issue this season. Stopping the other team, however, will be a big problem.

Indiana gave up 515 total yards, including 444 on the ground in a 41-35 loss at home to Navy and its triple-option offense.

“We practiced it hard every week,” safety Greg Heban said. “But we still ended up spending way too much time on the ground.

“I don’t know how to explain it. Coach Wilson talks all the time about handling success. We just didn’t handle it very well.”

No kidding. Just when the Hoosiers were starting to think things were starting to come together in Wilson’s third season, they are quickly realizing things haven’t changed much at all.

The offense was outstanding, once again, as quarterback Nate Sudfeld threw for 363 yards and four touchdowns. But the Hoosiers were simply beat up by a team they were favored to beat by almost two touchdowns.

However, Wilson said past Indiana teams would have “tanked it,” and talked about the Hoosiers still being headed in the right direction.

“He said things are starting to change, and he can tell that,” tight end Ted Bolser said. “A lot of previous Indiana teams that I’ve been on would have folded at the end and not even have given it a shot.”

Like a lot of Indiana teams, however, this one is still trying to figure out how to play defense.

Hazell happy

Sticking in the state of Indiana, Purdue is riding high after the first victory in the Darrell Hazell era.

OK, maybe not exactly riding high. It was a win, sure, but it was a tight, 20-14 victory over Indiana State. Yes, the same Indiana State team that gave up 73 points last week to Indiana.

But don’t try to rain on Hazell’s parade.

“I’m very happy,” he said. “I’ll eat good (Saturday night), as opposed to last week. Very fortunate to be in this business for 28 years, and there’s a lot of times where you win ugly or lose pretty, but you learn to appreciate the wins. It’s hard to win. We had it a little bit harder than we should have.”

Ricardo Allen, whose interception in Purdue territory with 19 seconds to play sealed the win, bottom-lined it.

“This is a win business,” he said. “That’s what we did. We’re happy about that, but we know we have strides to make.”

If not, it could be a while before Hazell is eating good again.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com
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Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase hands off to running back Josh Ferguson during the second half of the Illini's comprehensive 45-17 over Cincinnati Saturday. Illinois had 210 yards rushing to go along with Scheelhaase's 312 yards yards passing. / Andrew Nelles / Associated Press