CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Nathan Scheelhaase had waited a long time for a day like this.
Career-high 416 yards through the air. Two early touchdown passes that staked an Illinois team in bad need of an early win to a comfortable lead.
But the ending was closer to a hot, muggy nightmare than any fairy tale.
With the temperature hitting 95 degrees and the heat index 108, Scheelhaase watched helplessly from the sideline in the final minute Saturday as Southern Illinois fell just short of the kind of upset Football Championship Subdivision teams like the Salukis dream of, with Illinois holding on 42-34.
"It's gonna be a fight every time," the fifth-year senior quarterback said before refusing to attach much if any significance to his own big day. "Honestly, I think we'll all put it behind us and start preparing for Cincinnati." Illinois hosts the Bearcats next Saturday.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman enters the season under pressure after a 2-10 finish his first year in Champaign. He said after the game that he'll take the win but wasn't happy that his Illini let the Salukis claw their way back into the game.
"It's unacceptable and these things have to get corrected," Beckman said. "We have to make sure these get corrected."
Southern Illinois was left to think about what could have been.
Illinois had the Salukis down 25-7 at halftime and 39-17 late in the third quarter before letting them come back.
Down 42-43, Southern Illinois quarterback Kory Faulkner drove the Salukis down the field for a final shot. With 44 seconds to play and fourth down at the Illini 3-yard line, Faulkner threw too high for leaping wideout Adam Fuehne.
"Obviously we didn't complete it so I wish I had it back," Faulkner said. "But we work on that play a lot in practice and Fuehne is a great target and maybe four inches to the right and a little bit lower he could have times it better."
That let Illinois, finally, run the clock out.
Ryan Lankford caught six passes for 115 yards and Ferguson had four for another 103 yards.
Scheelhaase has taken his knocks since throwing for what was then a career-best 391 yards and three touchdowns in November 2011 in a storybook win over Northwestern at Wrigley Field.
Since then, he's seen head coach Ron Zook fired, played for three offensive coordinators and suffered through a season of injury trouble in 2012 as his team went winless in the Big Ten.
Beckman gave him much of the credit for the win.
"You don't understand how much the quarterbacks are involved in making things right," Beckman said. "Nathan did a great job of putting our team where the team needed to be."
Beyond Scheelhaase and the Illinois passing attack, there had to be cause for concern among the Illini.
The Salukis, a six-win FCS team in 2012, struck easily against a young Illinois secondary. Faulkner was 25 for 40 for 312 yards and three touchdowns, and was never sacked or, as the hot afternoon wore on, heavily pressured.
"We gave up some big plays and turned the football over," Beckman said, referring to a fumble by backup quarterback Reilly O'Toole that set up the Salukis' final touchdown.
The Illini offensive line had a rough afternoon, too. Illinois had just 49 rushing yards on 30 carries against a small Southern Illinois defense, and the Salukis had five sacks.
After falling behind 7-3 and sending a wave of anxiety through the crowd of 42,000, Scheelhaase' first touchdown gave the Illini the lead. He tossed a short pass to Ferguson, who weaved past a Saluki defender to the right sideline for a 53-yard score and a 10-7 lead with 9:31 left in the first half.
The Salukis barely had time to get their offense back on the field before Illini tackle Tim Kynard hammered running back Mika'il McCall as he came through the line, jarring the ball loose for Illinois' Houston Bates to dive on.
With 9:02 left in the half, Donovonn Young plunged into the end zone from two yards out for a 17-7 lead.
Then, after Southern Illinois elected to punt rather than go for it on a fourth-and-1 at the Illinois 43, the Illini too the ball at their own six with 1:32 left in the half and drove deep into SIU territory. From the Saluki 11, Scheelhaase hit Davis on the right sideline. Davis stumbled to the end zone, diving to push the ball in, for a 25-7 lead.
Illinois built that lead to 39-17 with just over five minutes to play in the third quarter on a 100-yard kickoff return by V'Angelo Bentley. He tied a school record for longest kickoff return.
The heat sent one official, linesman Bob Davis, to a local hospital for treatment of heat exhaustion. A Big Ten spokesman said he was alert after the game and talking with doctors. Beckman said linebacker Jonathan Brown and Ferguson needed IVs at halftime, too.
While Cincinnati -- a 42-7 winner over Purdue on Saturday -- travels to Illinois next Saturday, the Salukis will face Eastern Illinois at home.
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