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Illinois’ defense comes up big in victory over Western Michigan

By Colleen Kane, Chicago Tribune –

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Tim Beckman capped his first victory as Illinois’ coach Saturday by stopping a string of his defensive players for hugs as they exited the field.

And rightfully so as the Illini defense deserves plenty of praise for Beckman’s successful 24-7 debut over Western Michigan.

Illinois intercepted Broncos quarterback Alex Carder three times, the third for a 60-yard Ashante Williams touchdown early in the fourth quarter. It killed a possible momentum shift in Western Michigan’s favor after Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase left the game with a left ankle injury midway through the third quarter.

“I was proud of the way our front played to provide pressure,” Beckman said. “We had a lot of tipped balls. And then we also covered underneath extremely well with our linebackers.”

After throwing for 126 yards on 11-for-18 passing, Scheelhaase left the game and didn’t return as medical staff attended to him on the sideline.

Behind backup quarterbacks Reilly O’Toole and Miles Osei, the offense stalled. O’Toole completed 2 of 3 passes for seven yards and characterized his performance as “not too good.” Osei had three carries for eight yards.

Of Scheelhaase’s injury, Beckman would say only that the Illini “will continue to evaluate” it.

“Scheelhaase will do whatever he can to make sure he’s prepared and ready for (Arizona State),” Beckman said. “Reilly was up and down. Not that he’s not capable, because he’s definitely capable.”

Scheelhaase started with a 64-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Lankford on Illinois’ first drive, a play Illini co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said he knew would work on “Tuesday or Wednesday.” Scheelhaase added a 4-yard touchdown run in the second quarter and was intercepted in the third.

“I knew what I could do as soon as I saw the safety come down,” Lankford said of his touchdown. “I said, ‘I’m just going to use my speed and run by him.’ “

The Illini defense pitched a first-half shutout, fueled by big plays from defensive end Michael Buchanan and safety Earnest Thomas III.

Buchanan broke up a Western Michigan pass on third down late in the first quarter. On fourth-and-2, he batted a Carder pass into the air and caught it for his first career interception.

Thomas made his first career start while the Illini played without injured safeties Steve Hull and Supo Sanni. He dove in front of a Carder pass for an interception in the first.

“I played probably one of the worst games of my career,” said Carder, who completed 26 of 43 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown. “I had a lot of mental mistakes, a lot of stuff that was really uncharacteristic.”

Carder found Jaime Wilson for an 8-yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds left in the third to cut Illinois’ lead to 17-7.

After Williams heard the Illini coaches say the next Broncos drive would be key, he came up with the interception return to push Illinois ahead 24-7.

“I knew those routes were coming,” Williams said. “I kind of baited him into throwing the ball.”

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