CHAMPAIGN — People will remember Kory Faulkner’s pass glancing off the fingertips of Adam Fuehne in the end zone in Satur-day’s season opener at Illinois, but SIU’s football team lost the game well before they got back into it at Memorial Stadium.
Two 50-yard pass plays and a costly SIU turnover in the opening half helped the Fighting Illini get the cushion it needed to hold off the Salukis, 42-34, and win its 16th straight home opener. Down 7-3 after the first quarter, Illinois took the lead for good off a 53-yard screen pass from Nathan Scheelhaase to Josh Ferguson and extended it after recovering Mika’il McCall’s fumble at the SIU 30-yard line on the ensuing drive. Two plays later, Donovonn Young went into the end zone after a 2-yard run to put the Salukis firmly in catch-up mode.
“We made some mistakes (Saturday) that normally would bury you, and we were fortunate, offensively, we were able to keep the game close enough where we had a chance at the end,” said SIU coach Dale Lennon.
Right where SIU wanted them late in the first half, Illinois escaped from its own 18-yard line for a critical score right before the half. Scheelhaase, who passed for a career-high 416 yards, hit wide receiver Ryan Lankford for a deep out to the 31 for a first down. The fifth-year senior quarterback then found wideout Steve Hull all alone in the middle of the field for a 55-yard gain that ended at the SIU 14-yard line. Illinois scored its third touchdown of the quarter with 17 seconds to go in the half, and went up 18 after a two-point conversion. Holder Tim Russell took the snap for the extra point and reared up to throw, connecting with tight end Matt La-Cosse for a 25-7 lead.
Scheelhaase finished the first half 22-of-28 for 340 yards and two touchdowns through the air. SIU linebacker Bryan Presume said the noise of the 42,175 fans and miscommunication led to some costly big plays early.
“It was pretty loud out there, as you could see. There were a lot of fans out there and the DBs just didn’t get the coverages right at times,” said Presume, who led SIU with 10 tackles. “It happens with our defense. A lot of communication is key for our defense. It’s just something we’ve got to adjust to and keep getting better at.”
The Salukis went down 22 points after allowing their first kickoff return for a touchdown in more than a decade in the third quarter, but nearly got enough together to tie the game in the final minute. V’Angelo Bentley’s 100-yard kickoff return put Illinois up 39-17, and was the first such touchdown allowed by SIU since Drake’s William Casey returned one 45 yards for a score in 2000.
Faulkner, who threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns, nearly got his fourth on a fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line in the final minute. With three receivers to his left and two to his right, Faulkner took the snap and floated a ball toward the 6-foot-7 Fuehne near the right back corner of the end zone. Fuehne had a smaller defender to his left, but couldn’t haul it in, as Illinois celebrated its 14th win in as many tries against other public state universities.
“We played the scoring game when we had to,” Lennon said. “Two scores going into the fourth quarter, with five minutes left, that’s not a safe lead. With that mentality, we were able to get it to that point. We just weren’t able to finish it.”
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