CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Ron Zook lost his job at Illinois after a six-game losing streak, during which it seemed that if things could go wrong they would. Just as it felt like things might be turning against his replacement on Saturday, a fourth-quarter interception returned for a touchdown delivered a 24-7 win for the Illini and their new coach, Tim Beckman, over Western Michigan in the season opener for both teams.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Ron Zook lost his job at Illinois after a six-game losing streak, during which it seemed that if things could go wrong they would.
Just as it felt like things might be turning against his replacement on Saturday, a fourth-quarter interception returned for a touchdown delivered a 24-7 win for the Illini and their new coach, Tim Beckman, over Western Michigan in the season opener for both teams.
After leading 17-0, Illinois had seen the Broncos cut that lead to 17-7 and they were moving again. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was out with an ankle injury, and the Illini were feeling the pressure of a make-or-break moment, said linebacker Ashante Williams said.
"It was key — the coaches came out right before that drive and said 'This is the key drive in the game,'" the senior said. "They had already scored in the series before that and if they would have scored again that basically would have shifted the momentum to their side."
Williams made sure that didn't happen, picking off Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder and returning it 60 yards for a touchdown.
Athletic director Mike Thomas gave Beckman the game ball, but the new coach deflected the credit to his team for finding a way to hold on.
"Mike Thomas was gracious enough to give me the game ball, but this was not my game ball," Beckman said. "This is the team's game ball. That game ball will sit right there, we'll get it framed. This is the first victory of the new era."
The Broncos, a year after losing a 23-20 heartbreaker at Illinois, struggled to get into the game. Carder was intercepted three times.
"Offensively was probably the biggest disappointment," coach Bill Cubit said. "That we just didn't execute at all. We just played really poorly."
Scheelhaase left the game with just over seven minutes left in the third quarter, just after Donald Celiscar intercepted him in the Bronco end zone as the Illini tried to extend their 17-0 lead. As officials reviewed the call — they initially said Celiscar was out of bounds — Scheelhaase limped noticeably and minutes later was done, sitting on a sideline trainer's table with his ankle iced.
Scheelhaase didn't speak to reporters after the game and Beckman offered few details about the injury, but said he suspects the junior quarterback will play next Saturday at Arizona State.
"Yeah, it was his ankle and we'll continue to evaluate," the coach said. "But you all know Nathan Scheelhaase and he will do whatever he can to make sure he's prepared and ready for next week."
The 20-plus minutes Illinois played without him gave Beckman a look at the limits of his offense without the third-year starter.
Before Scheelhaase left, the Illini had close to 240 yards of offense. They finished with 248 total yards.
Sophomore Reilly O'Toole came in at quarterback and completed two of three attempts for just 7 yards.
Earlier, the game was Scheelhaase's showcase. A year after Illinois' close call with Western Michigan, he looked Saturday to quickly end any suspense.
Scheelhaase hit Ryan Lankford deep for a 64-yard touchdown pass 1:40 into the game for a quick 7-0 lead. Then, after Nick Immekus' field goal, Scheelhaase ran the ball in from 4 yards out midway through the second quarter to make it 17-0.
Illinois' leading rusher was Jon Davis, a tight end lining up as an H-back. He carried the ball six times for 54 yards.
But with the offense struggling, Illinois defense played tough. The Illini held the pass-heavy Broncos to 259 yards, including minus-6 yards on the ground. Defensive end Michael Buchanan and safety Earnest Thomas joined Williams with interceptions.
Carder, a year after burning the Illini more than 300 yards, struggled Saturday with an inexperienced group of receivers but said his problems Saturday were his own.
"I just made some bad decisions," Carder said. "I just wasn't reading my keys correctly and that's how interceptions happen."
He finished 26 of 43 for 239 yards, a touchdown and the three picks.
But Celiscar's interception and Scheelhaase's exit seemed to bring Carder and the Bronco offense to life.
They scored on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Carder to Jaime Wilson to make it 17-7 just before the end of the third quarter.
Minutes later Western Michigan was driving again. The Broncos reached the Illinois 46 when Carder looked for a receiver to his left, but Williams stepped in front of the ball and raced alone to the end zone.
Beckman said Williams shut the door on Western Michigan.
"It was huge, there was no question," he said. "Because you know how the game was going, you were there, you understand it. The momentum kind of swung to our side after that."
The remnants of Hurricane Isaac doused the Champaign area early Saturday and forecasters said several inches were possible over the weekend, but the rain let up before the game and wasn't a factor.
Zook's Illini were 4-0 after last season's win over the Broncos, but his team won just twice more before losing six straight, a streak that cost him his job.
The way that season finished made an opening win for Beckman that much more important for this season's Illini.
"We really feel like this is the beginning of a new era," Buchanan said. "We wanted to get it for him."
Beckman's Rockets last season held on for a wild 66-63 win over the Broncos in the Mid-American Conference
While the Illini face Arizona State, the Broncos head home to take on FCS school Eastern Illinois.
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