CHAMPAIGN -- If Illinois football needs some good news after a 52-24 loss to Louisiana Tech Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, it comes by entering Big Ten play next week.



 

 

CHAMPAIGN -- If Illinois football needs some good news after a 52-24 loss to Louisiana Tech Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, it comes by entering Big Ten play next week.

Suffering from a bruised reputation after the season's first two weeks and made worse by another forgettable day on the scoreboard earlier in the day, the Big Ten has turned into the Big Easy.

The bad news? The Illini have done nothing to build anyone's confidence, after Louisiana Tech turned a 7-0 deficit into the Illini's second blowout loss in four games and left a chill on the first night of fall. Remember, the Illini already used their mulligan in a 31-point loss in the desert to Arizona State two weeks ago.

"There's a long way to go, no question,'' Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. "If you turn the football over six times and they score it easy like they did, it's inexcusable.

"I know Illini fans feel the same as we do.''

Illinois (2-2) hosts Penn State Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN). The Illini say their goals are still ahead of them, but the visibility after two losses left them hard to see. Where the Illini go from here will be interesting.

"We're just trying to stay positive,'' said Illini defensive end Michael Buchanan. "We're four games into the season. We've got a lot of football left to play.''

Heading into the season, Illinois figured to build its hopes around three-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and a defense considered the team's strength. But after the Illini fell behind 21-7 in the first quarter, Illinois juggled the playing time at quarterback and faced another regroup on defense.

Scheelhaase found himself back on the sidelines, and it had little to do with an injury. Back after missing two games with a sprained ankle, Scheelhaase returned to the bench after throwing an interception and losing a fumble in the first quarter.

"He looked rusty early,'' Beckman said. "We weren't moving the ball. We decided as a coaching staff that we'd give Reilly an opportunity to move the ball.''

Scheelhaase wasn't 100 percent, he said, but the results got him yanked.

"It doesn't matter if it's the NFL, college football or Little League, it comes down to execution,'' Scheelhaase said.

Sophomore quarterback Reilly O'Toole took over the position, playing for nearly all of the final three quarters. O'Toole guided the Illini on a 13-play, 57-yard drive for a touchdown to climb within 21-17 late in the first half but didn't get anything going in a decisive third quarter. Third-stringer Miles Osei logged two plays in the second quarter.

 

Meanwhile, the Illini defense gave up touchdown passes of 78 and 21 yards on Louisiana Tech's first two possessions of the second half, turning a 21-17 halftime score into a runaway.

The crowd was only slightly bigger than the previous week and short of the 46,539 announced.

No matter the size of the crowd, it's hard to imagine anybody in orange heading for home and making plans for a New Year's Day bowl trip.

This always looked like a challenging game. The Bulldogs entered as the defending WAC champs and the preseason favorites. For $775,000, the Illini gave themselves the right to play the best team in a non-AQ league. Louisiana Tech stretched the nation's third-longest regular-season winning streak to 10 games while improving to 3-0.

"Illinois is going to have a good football team, but they were a little unsettled at quarterback tonight," Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes said.

Illinois took a 7-0 lead on a 18-yard pass from Scheelhaase to Ryan Lankford, who reached back to catch the ball thrown well behind him. The two-play, 18-yard drive was set up when Buchanan sacked quarterback Colby Cameron and forced a fumble.

NOTES: Illinois played without center Graham Pocic, wide receiver Darius Millines and linebacker Houston Bates. Tackle Hugh Thornton didn't play in the second half. . . After putting up 56 points in each of its first two games, Louisiana Tech scored 45 points in three consecutive games for the first time in school history. . .

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.

Illinois report card

Offense -- F
The Illini pulled starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase after he threw an interception and lost a fumble in the first quarter. He never made it back on the field. The Illini lost five turnovers.

Defense -- F
So much for that defense that was one of the top 10 in the country last season. In defensive coordinator Tim Banks' first season on the job, the Illini have been embarrassed twice in the first four games.

Special teams -- F
The Illini got nothing going in their return game and gave up a touchdown on a botched punt return.

Overall -- F
It's only four weeks into the season, but Illini fans twice had to watch a disaster scene. Not a good start for the Beckman era.