CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Tommy Tuberville is well aware of his team’s limitations. There might have been plenty of euphoria surrounding the University of Cincinnati following last week’s 42-7 win against Purdue but Tuberville knew better. He knew going on the road to play a Big Ten team, even a team that went winless in the Big Ten last season, would be no easy task.
Whatever momentum the Cincinnati Bearcats might have had from the Purdue victory never showed up in Saturday’s 45-17 loss to Illinois at Memorial Stadium. UC fell behind 21-0 in the second quarter and never got closer than 11 points the rest of the game. They started the game sloppy – five penalties in the first quarter, including four false starts, plus a turnover – and couldn’t counteract a lack of depth. Or Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
Scheelhaase completed 26 of 37 passes for 312 yards and four touchdowns. He had four touchdown passes all of last season. Illinois totaled 522 yards on offense. It hadn’t surpassed 500 yards of offense in 23 months. The Illini converted nine of their 15 chances on third down. UC made just three of its 13 third downs.
“Just a little opposite of what we saw last week,” said Tuberville. “Too many mistakes and got to give Illinois a lot of credit. They did a lot of things on offense. They did a good job coaching on both sides.”
Compounding the loss of the game, the Bearcats lost senior quarterback Munchie Legaux in the fourth quarter to a severe left knee injury after he was hit by Illinois defensive end Tim Kynard while attempting a pass. The Bearcats trailed 31-17 with 9:23 remaining in the game when Legaux was injured and any glimmer of hope of coming back left when Legaux was carted off the field.
“It went from me thinking ‘Man, we can still win this game,’ to ‘Dang, man, what if that was me?’ That could’ve been me and your whole mindset just changes from trying to win a game to wondering how long he’s going to be out, can he play again?” said senior linebacker Greg Blair. “It just humbles you. Every play you’ve got to play like it’s your last. We know we play a dangerous sport but it hurts when you see one of our brothers go down like that.”
UC committed just two penalties against Purdue last week but they matched that on their first possession.
Even when things looked like they were going to turn UC’s way, they didn’t. Trailing 21-10 with lots of time remaining in the third quarter, Legaux was initially ruled to have scored a touchdown on a fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line. Legaux took the snap and rolled to his left with a run/throw option. Seeing his receivers covered, he chose to run. He lowered his shoulder and apparently got the ball to the goal line through two Illinois defenders.
Kicker Tony Miliano was coming onto the field for an extra point attempt when the replay booth buzzed down to the referee.
TV replays showed – well, at least they showed to the officials – that Legaux fumbled the ball before reaching the goal line and it was recovered by a Bearcat. Since a fumbled ball can’t be advanced by a player on the same team the Bearcats went from the possibility of cutting the deficit to four points to losing possession.
Illinois answered that turnover on downs with a 99-yard touchdown drive to regain momentum.
“Someone once told me momentum is for the weak-minded,” said senior running back Ralph David Abernathy IV, “so you just have to bounce back regardless.”
The fact is the Bearcats never really bounced back.
Two games into Tuberville’s coaching tenure and he has to get this team to understand it’s not as bad as 45-17, just as it’s not as good as 42-7. With Northwestern State, a Football Championship Series program, coming to Nippert Stadium next Saturday night followed by a trip to Oxford to play Miami, the Bearcats will have that opportunity.
They’ll have a chance to get Brendon Kay acclimated to taking all of the snaps at quarterback again. Legaux had earned the starting spot from him each of the first two games but this will be Kay’s show to run now.
“We have to get better and move forward,” said Blair. “We need to have a short memory. It’s football, and it’s about wins and losses, and we’ve just got to learn from our mistakes and work to get better every day.”