Nathan Scheelhaase and Illinois have heard plenty of criticism over the past two seasons. On Saturday, they took heart in signs of progress.
Scheelhaase accounted for 495 yards of offense, the third-best individual performance in school history, as the Illini matched scores with Indiana into the fourth quarter Saturday before falling 52-35.
Illinois (3-6, 0-5 Big Ten) dropped its 19th consecutive conference game but compiled 612 total yards, its best offensive day in the last six seasons.
"Not many people ask me about positives," Scheelhaase said. "I thought we got some positive mojo going. I thought I did a pretty good job. We just have to sustain that mojo."
Indiana (4-5, 2-3) was led by Tevin Coleman, who carried 15 times for a career-high 215 yards, the most by a Hoosier since 2003. The teams engaged in a back-and-forth shootout until Coleman's 75-yard run edged Indiana ahead 42-35 with 12:41 remaining.
It came one play after Illinois appeared to catch a huge break. Right tackle Corey Lewis, who rushed for 27 touchdowns as a high school senior, tied the game at 35 when he fell on Josh Ferguson's fumble in the end zone for his first college score. Ferguson, who accounted for 139 yards of offense, lost the ball when attempting to leap over a scrum on second-and-goal.
The Illini couldn't capitalize on a bit of good fortune. Now they hope to build on their offensive rhythm in games at Wisconsin and Ohio State and at home against Purdue to close the season.
"I tell the players it is going to come," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. "We are all disappointed. I have not been through anything like this in my life. We're going to keep fighting. We've got three opportunities left."
Illinois wideout Steve Hull caught nine passes for 224 yards, the second-best total in team history. Hull started 15 games at safety before moving to receiver this season. He broke a short in route for a 60-yard score in the first quarter. Hull then got wide open downfield on Illinois' first drive of the second half for a 54-yard TD reception that tied the game at 21.
"He stepped up and made plays when it was time to make some," Scheelhaase said.
Illinois entered the game with the 70th-ranked offense, averaging 402 yards. By the break, the Illini had gained 288. They finished with 612 yards, but a struggling defense cost them a chance to break through for their first Big Ten victory since Oct. 8, 2011, which came at Indiana.
The Illini were never the same after Coleman's go-ahead score. On their ensuing possession, linebacker Steven Funderburk came unblocked on a third-and-10 blitz to force an incompletion. Then Beckman dialed up a fake punt that flopped on fourth down. Punter Justin DuVernois threw low and well short of the marker.
"I'll take the fault," Beckman said. "We'd been practicing that play for the last three weeks. If it would've worked we'd all be smiling now."
Two plays later, Stephen Houston rushed in from the 2-yard line to make it 49-35. Prior to that, neither side led by more than seven. Houston finished with 17 carries for 150 yards and two TDs.
Coleman has been a huge factor for Indiana after beating out Houston for the starting tailback job in preseason camp. Against the Illini, the sophomore from Tinley, Ill., continued his knack for big plays. He used blocks by pulling guard Jacob Bailey and slot receiver Shane Wynn to zip 64 yards to the end zone on Indiana's second snap of the day.
Coleman came in leading the Football Bowl Subdivision with six rushes of at least 40 yards and upped that total to eight.
The teams traded touchdowns on four consecutive possessions in the first quarter before defense prevailed in the second. Illinois kicker Taylor Zalewski was wide right on a 41-yard field goal try with 1:20 left in the half. Indiana held a 21-14 lead at intermission.
Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld, who finished 20-of-27 for 267 yards and three TD passes, twice hooked up with Cody Latimer for scores in the third quarter. Scheelhaase scrambled in from 14 yards out to briefly give Illinois its only lead of the day, 28-21, with 8:31 left in the period.