On Saturday, September 14th, the Illinois Fighting Illini took on the #19 Washington Huskies in a “neutral” site game at Soldier Field in Chicago, Washington supporters occupying roughly 3/17 of the seats for the 5:00 game. Both teams came into the game 2-0 and coming off of blowout wins, Illinois over Cincinnati, and Washington over Boise State. The Fighting Illini received votes in the national polls after week 2 after preseason predictions of a 2-win season, but the Huskies quieted some of the hype with a 34-24 victory. Led by 208-yard rusher Bishop Sankey and quarterback Keith Price’s 342 passing yards, Washington exploited an Illinois defense that was improved against Cincinnati from week one’s narrow victory over Southern Illinois. The Huskies put up 615 yards on the Illini, taking advantage of blown secondary coverage and the Sankey’s superior quickness.
Illinois’s offense was not as effective as it was in the first two games, either. The team that came into Saturday’s contest averaging 43.5 points per contest only managed 24, thanks to quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase’s lack of accuracy. For much of the night, Scheelhaase was badly missing wide open receivers. Blame it on the poor footing at Soldier Field or chalk it up to a return to his disappointing form from previous years, but the leader of Bill Cubit’s offense had an off night. Scheelhaase was not the only underperformer in orange on this night: senior receiver Steve Hull dropped what would have almost surely been a touchdown on the first possession, and kicker Taylor Zalewski missed a makeable field goal with the score knotted at 0.
With all the mistakes they made, the Illini kept this one close, taking advantage of a pair of Husky fumbles to end drives, but failing to capitalize on either. Coming out of halftime down 10-3, the Fighting Illini made adjustments to Washington’s defense, calling more quarterback draws to take advantage of running lanes left by the Husky pass rush. It all proved to be too little, too late, as Illinois couldn’t ride the momentum gained by a 72-yard touchdown pass from Scheelhaase to Ryan Lankford to pull ahead, and this one ended with Washington on top.
Illinois has several issues to address, especially on defense, after this game. Fortunately for them, they have a bye week to tighten up the secondary in preparation for Miami (OH) and the start of the Big Ten schedule.