CHAMPAIGN — The fireworks after Saturday’s football game at Memorial Stadium were not as explosive as the Louisiana Tech football team.
The Bulldogs (3-0) had touchdown passes of 21, 27, 38 and 78 yards in their 52-24 rout of the Illinois Fighting Illini.
“They just beat us in one-on-one situations,’’ Illinois coach Tim Beckman said.
But, the big touchdown plays were something new for Louisiana Tech, which has scored at least 50 points in all three victories.
Before Saturday night, the Bulldogs had two of its 16 touchdowns come from more than 20 yards.
“Big plays hurt and that’s something a successful defense can’t allow,’’ said Illinois senior defensive end Michael Buchanan, who added those plays were probably a result of “poor tackling and guys not being where they were supposed to be.’’
Louisiana Tech receiver Quinton Patton, who 6 receptions for 164 yards, made two of those big plays to start the second half.
“We were fortunate to get a couple of big plays and they turned the tide of the game,’’ said Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes, whose team went from leading 21-17 at halftime to an 35-17 advantage in just 5 minutes, 34 seconds of the second half.
Colby Cameron, quarterback for the Bulldogs, finished the game with 284 yards passing and four scores.
According to Beckman, the defensive pass problems were a combination of factors.
“We have to create more pressure on the quarterback and then we have to cover better,’’ he said. “It was a lot of play-action that caught us in one-on-one situations, and they ended up being successful.
“They ended up being good football players that ended up making some big plays.’’
And while some people will associate this loss with the 45-14 drubbing at Arizona State on Sept. 8 when the Sun Devils threw for 318 yards, Illinois sophomore quarterback Reilly O’Toole is not one of them.
“I thought our defense played well,’’ he said.
So what was the problem?
“Pretty much the whole game falls on the turnovers,’’ he said.
Illinois (2-2) gave the ball away six times — five fumbles and one interception — and those offensive miscues led directly to 31 points for Louisiana Tech.
“You are not going to be anyone when you turn the ball over like we did,’’ said O’Toole, who had one of his team’s five fumbles. “Our defense got tired and we didn’t help them out with the turnovers. We were giving them short fields to work with on defense.’’
That proved to be a lethal combination on Saturday night.
“Regardless of who you are playing, you are not going to win football games if you turn the ball over and give up big strikes,’’ Beckman said. “We are disappointed in the way we played and the way that we coached.’’
The Fighting Illini actually started the game fast when junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, playing for the first time in three weeks because of an ankle injury, completed his first three pass attempts.
On the third completion, Illinois running back Josh Ferguson set the tone for the night with a fumble.
“I felt like in the first drive, I had things going,’’ said Scheelhaase, who was 8-of-11 for 85 yards.
Two possessions later, Scheelhaase got Illinois into the end zone, taking a 7-0 lead, with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Lankford following a Louisiana Tech fumble.
But that’s when things turned for Scheelhaase and the Illini.
The Bulldogs scored on their next three possessions — the last two set up by a Scheelhaase interception and a fumble — to take a 21-7 lead.
“There are just some things you can’t do,’’ said Scheelhaase referring to the turnovers and admitting he didn’t have his usual burst of speed. “I just got to get back to where I can run away from people.
“I’m frustrated that I didn’t make those plays. They are sure two plays that I want back.’’
O’Toole, a sophomore quarterback who set an Illini single-game completion percentage record in last week’s win over Charleston Southern, took over for Scheelhaase after the back-to-back turnovers.
“We weren’t move the ball, so we decided as a coaching staff, that we would give Reilly an opportunity,’’ Beckman said. “He came in there and moved the ball a little bit.’’
The Fighting Illini scored twice in the second quarter while limiting the Bulldogs to two yards on six plays to pull within 21-17 at halftime.
“We felt we made a good run,’’ Buchanan said. “We had a lot of confidence coming out (at halftime), but they were able to make a big play and got a score on us.
“It just kind of deflated us.’’
With the victory, the Bulldogs extended their regular-season win streak to 10 games — third longest in the nation for NCAA FBS schools — and it was their second win over a Big Ten program.
Previously, Louisiana Tech defeated Michigan State 20-19 on Sept. 13, 2003 in East Lansing, Mich.
“It’s big, being 3-0 to start the season,’’ said Louisiana Tech linebacker Antonio Mithcum, who recovered a muffed punt in the end zone, giving the Bulldogs a 42-17 lead in the third quarter. “I heard it’s been a while, but we’re just going to continue to go on to the next one and enjoy this one.’’
The last time the Bulldogs opened their season with three straight wins was 1997.
Illinois is back at home next Saturday with its Big Ten opener against the Penn State Nittany Lions (2-2).
Kickoff at Memorial Stadium is set for 11 a.m. and the game will be broadcast by ESPN.