By Shannon Ryan, Chicago Tribune reporter
8:29 PM CST, November 10, 2012
CHAMPAIGN — Illinois ignited fans' hopes at Memorial Stadium with a 49-yard flea-flicker on their opening drive but Saturday ended as drearily for the Illini as they have grown accustomed.
That 89-yard drive stalled inside the Minnesota 1 and the offense had to settle for a 20-yard spirit-crushing field goal. The rest of the game featured stalled drives, inopportune penalties and two fumbles by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. The end result was a 17-3 loss to the Gophers.
"If you can't score a touchdown from the half-inch yard line then you have some problems," coach Tim Beckman said of the obvious.
The Illini (2-8, 0-6 Big Ten) have an array of troubles and most of them were exhibited against the Gophers (6-4, 2-4), who became bowl eligible for the first time since 2009.
The teams played to a 3-3 halftime tie before Minnesota went ahead 10-3 on Donnell Kirkwood's 3-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
The Illini's opportunity to put together a defining drive fell flat when Scheelhaase reached out the ball and fumbled the ball away on third-and-1 at the Illini 29 with 2 minutes, 37 seconds remaining. Kirkwood scored the game-clinching touchdown three plays later, finishing with 152 yards rushing on 28 carries.
"He was just trying to make a play but that's not the smart play," Beckman said of Scheelhaase. "We do not reach the football out to try to make a play."
Beckman was just as frustrated with the offensive line.
"We have to come off the football and bloody some mouths," he said. "This is college football. Get the ball a yard."
It was clearly a frustrating day for Scheelhaase, who also overthrew a few passes and fumbled a snap in the second quarter.
"I'm low and I'm not a person who likes to be low," said Scheelhaase, who completed 15 of 23 passes for 175 yards.
Beckman said he has become more involved in the offense recently and planned to become more involved. That does not involve play calling, he said, leaving that job to offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, who makes the third down calls.
"I'll just suggest and strongly urge some of the plays," Beckman said.
While Beckman said switching from Scheelhaase to Reilly O'Toole was not seriously discussed, the decision mostly would be one Beatty would have to initiate. Beatty said that move was not under consideration.
"It wasn't Nate's fault," Beatty said. "Nate's our guy. I've never been part of a group that flip flops quarterbacks."