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Tim is now at Illinois: Beckman era begins with win over Western Michigan

QB Nathan Scheelhaase (2) celebrates first-half touchdown before suffering an ankle injury. | Seth Perlman~AP

QB Nathan Scheelhaase (2) celebrates a first-half touchdown before suffering an ankle injury. | Seth Perlman~AP

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Updated: October 3, 2012 6:28AM

CHAMPAIGN — As Tim Beckman trundled off the field, athletic director Mike Thomas gave his new coach a big awkward hug/handshake that left both trying to maintain their balance.

Illinois won’t jump into the Top 25 after a 24-7 victory over Western Michigan on Saturday that showed flaws as well as promise. But that doesn’t diminish the positives of the Illini getting their act together amid an air of uncertainty in their first game under their new coach.

‘‘It was great,’’ said defensive end Michael Buchanan, who spearheaded a defense that came up with four turnovers. ‘‘We really wanted to do it for coach Beckman. All the guys in the locker room love him. We feel like he’s bringing a new era. It feels great to get this first win.’’

The rain in the forecast never materialized, but Illinois erupted for a 17-0 lead with 7:40 left in the first half. From there, it held on, scoring its final touchdown on a 60-yard interception return by senior Ashante Williams, a safety/linebacker hybrid who appropriately plays the Star position in Beckman’s defense.

Ominously, junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase left the game after injuring his left ankle when he threw an interception with 7:34 left in the third quarter.

If Illinois’ offense, which is a work in progress even with Scheelhaase, doesn’t have its third-year starter at QB going forward, Beckman’s first season could become even more murky. But the severity of the injury was not immediately clear.

‘‘We’ll continue to evaluate it,’’ Beckman said. ‘‘You all know Nathan Scheelhaase. He’ll do whatever he can to make sure he’s prepared and ready for next week.’’

Scheelhaase opportunistically connected on a 64-yard pass to a wide-open Ryan Lankford for Illinois’ first TD, then added a four-yard run for Illinois’ second TD.

Versatile tight end Jon Davis led Illinois’ rushing attack with 54 yards on six carries. Running back Josh Ferguson had 38 yards on 11 carries for an offense that did not dazzle.

Beckman’s verdict on the Illinois offense, which gained 248 yards, 11 fewer than Western Michigan’s 259?

‘‘I’d say a C-plus,’’ he said. ‘‘We need to be more physical when we run the ball.’’

And the defense?

‘‘I guess I’m a perfectionist,’’ he said. ‘‘We’ll give them a B.’’

Illinois needs to keep the bar high for its defense, which it will need to lean on to get where it wants to go. It also needs to keep making plays like Williams’ pick.

‘‘The coaches said, ‘This is the key drive in the game,’ ’’ Williams said. ‘‘They’d scored the series before that. If they’d scored again, that would have shifted the momentum to their side. So I was trying to make a play. I saw my opportunity, and I capitalized on it.’’

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