Illinois head coach Ron Zook was pleased with the play of his football team Saturday. Nathan Scheelhaase improved markedly as the offense put points on the board. And the defense stifled a creative and talented Saluki offense.
"The thing that was very encouraging is our guys got better," Zook said afterward. "I thought defensively we're getting more and more confidence. Our offense is just a little bit away from really taking off. You got a chance to see Nathan do some things we see him do all the time. We've got to continue to get better."
The Illini scored on their second possession when Scheelhaase found A.J. Jenkins on a long post route. Jenkins caught the ball with a defender falling into him and scurried into the end zone to give the Illini a lead they would never relinquish.
The offense couldn't generate anything on its next two series, but the Illini defense held the Dawgs in check. Aided by strong punting by Anthony Santella and a 15 yard punt return by Jack Ramsey, the Illini scored on a two play drive from the SIU 36 yard line shortly before the end of the first quarter. Scheelhaase hit freshman tight end Evan Wilson for a 34 yard completion down to the two yard line. Mikel Leshoure then rumbled into the end zone.
Eddie McGee, getting reps at quarterback after a strong week of practice, threw his second interception to give SIU great field position at the UI 20. Kyle Dougherty scored SIU's only points on a 30 yard field goal after the Illini defense stiffened.
The Illini countered immediately with a 67 yard drive in six plays to make it 21-3 at the half. Leshoure had the big play, a 34 yard run. A pass from Scheelhaase to Jarred Fayson and subsequent SIU penalty put the ball on the eight yard line. Leshoure needed one carry for the score.
The second half was more of the same. The Illini made a few mistakes along the way, but the defense always rose up to keep SIU from getting back in the game. For instance, the Salukis began the second half three and out, but their punt glanced off Ramsey after being held up in the wind. Getting the ball on the UI 17, Illini defensive end Whitney Mercilus forced a fumble from SIU quarterback Chris Dieker on third down. Ian Thomas recovered.
The Illini offense responded with possibly it's best drive of the night. Pounding the ball with Leshoure and Jason Ford, the Illini went 90 yards in ten plays to put the game out of reach at 28-3. Scheelhaase found tight end Justin Lattimore wide open on a scramble, hitting him perfectly for a 33 yard touchdown. Ford added a one yard plunge for the final 35-3 margin.
Scheelhaase was 14 for 18 passing for 229 yards and two touchdowns. He made remarkable improvement since the Missouri game according to Zook.
"Nathan had a great night. He showed what he can do. The great thing about Nathan is he'll continue to improve as he gets experience. He's gonna will himself to be better and better."
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino agreed.
"Nathan made big strides and improved a lot. I think with every game he plays, with that experience he'll play better. It was good to see him make those plays."
Scheelhaase was much more relaxed in his second college game, as the results demonstrated. He noticed the subtle change.
"Yeah. Actually, I felt relaxed and confident last week, even with the ups and downs last week had. Throughout the game, I thought I stayed focused. But obviously you do learn a whole lot from your first game, how the game is played and what you can and can't do."
Leshoure hit the century mark for the second straight game, gaining 115 yards in 15 carries. Some predicted the Illini would try to pound the Salukis with a running game, but they were well prepared for it. Eventually, openings presented themselves according to Leshoure.
"They definitely held their own. They've got a lot of transfer guys that played Division I football, so they know how the big-time is. They felt like they were just as good as us, and they could come in and win. They held their own for awhile, but we kept pounding them. Eventually runs opened up and we got some touchdowns."
Jenkins was the receiving star, gaining 114 yards on five receptions. He was pleased with his night but preferred to talk team.
"It felt good. We have some momentum now, and it got the bad taste out of our mouths."
Zook was pleased with the way the Illinois defense kept the potent SIU offense in check most of the night. The Illini outgained the Salukis 407 to 230. The Dawgs had only 62 yards rushing.
"I think the defensive coaches did a great job in preparation. They have a new offensive coordinator, and we only had a couple tapes from last year. So we weren't exactly sure what we were gonna get. I thought we had a great plan, our guys executed. We gave up a little bit, but we played more confident."
The Illini often pressured SIU quarterback Chris Dieker with just three rushers. Corey Liuget, Whitney Mercilus, Justin Staples and company had only 4 sacks on the night, but the heat seemed to throw off his accuracy.
"That's right. When people were around him, he wasn't as comfortable," Zook added.
Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning is a tough taskmaster, but he agreed there were improvements.
"The outcome was obviously a lot better. This team scored 70 points last week. So we were really concerned how we were gonna hang in there and handle their offense. They started getting into the spread and all kinds of stuff, and we were able to handle it and kind of got them out of some of their stuff."
Zook recognizes the work Koenning has done to transform the UI defense from its woes of recent years.
"There's no question we're tackling better. There's no question we're playing harder, and we're demanding more in practice. That's why we're playing better on Saturdays. And they're having fun too and getting more and more confident."
Travon Bellamy had seven tackles including two tackles for loss. Tavon Wilson broke up three passes in addition to his five tackles. Others with five tackles each were Ashante Williams, Justin Green and true freshman Jonathan Brown. Ian Thomas added four tackles, one sack and a fumble recovery, while Mercilus had three tackles, one forced fumble, one pass broken up, one quarterback hurry and a sack.
The special teams were solid again. Santella averaged a tremendous 50.8 yards for five punts, the best of his college career. Derek Dimke converted all five extra points.
McGee had a tough night. Besides throwing two interceptions in three chances, he damaged an ankle. He was carted off the field, but X-rays were negative. It is not known how long it will take him to recover from his ankle sprain.
Other than that one bit of bad news, the Illini have a victory under their belts and a definite boost of confidence. This victory was no fluke, giving hope the team can continue to improve and have a quality season.