Mistakes and penalties interfered with the aesthetic value of the game, but the final score favored the Illini. Unlike last year, they were able to raise their level of play when most needed to pull out a win that gives them a 2-1 record for the young season. Illinois coach Ron Zook was proud how his guys accepted the challenge of the inspired Huskies.
"The thing I'm proud about our football team is when we had to do it, we did it. When it was important that we bow up, we did. You have to go through those kinds of games at times. We're on the positive side of it."
Mikel Leshoure carried the offensive load for the Illini, galloping for 181 yards in 24 carries and one touchdown. That TD was a 29 yarder that put the game away to complete a time-consuming drive when the Illini needed it most late in the fourth quarter. Zook praised his effort.
"Mikel's a big load now. He's got that get-up-and-go. He can run hard inside, and he's got the speed to get outside. And he's a competitor. This is really the first year he's become a team leader and team guy. I'm proud of him. He had a great off season, and it's carried right on."
Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino smiled and agreed Leshoure fits the profile of his 'feed the studs' philosophy. But he praised Leshoure's teammates on the touchdown sweep.
"He came through when we needed it. It was a great job blocking up front on that one touchdown. The true freshman tight end (Evan Wilson) had a great block. He sealed the edge between him and Jeff (Allen), and then (Jarred) Fayson had a great block and Mikel ran it in for a touchdown."
Leshoure also was quick to praise his blockers, who set up openings as he bobbed and weaved his way goalward.
"Everyone did their job. Everyone executed their assignments. Jarred Fayson blocked his man. We had the freshman 15 (Darius Millines) out there, and he did his job. Most of the time, when you get those long runs, the receivers are doing their jobs.
"I'm just trying to do my job. Get in some rhythm and execute the plays. At the end of the game, when I hear I had 100 yards, that's good. But just to get that win is even better."
When NIU went 80 yards in three plays to pull within 21-19, the Illini answered with a 67 yard drive of their own. Zook made an important decision to go for it on fourth and one at his own 46 yard line, and Leshoure ran for a first down to keep the drive alive. Zook explained his decision.
"I just felt like it was important that we get the first down. I thought that we would."
That decision not only helped decide the outcome, it gave the offense a needed energy boost according to Leshoure.
"It gives us confidence. He believes that we can get the job done. I told the guys we had to get this right here and have the will to win. Those guys felt the energy, and we got it done."
Scheelhaase showed poise throughout, running for 115 net yards in 16 carries and a touchdown plus adding 70 yards through the air on 8 for 16 accuracy. He ran for a successful two-point conversion and had no turnovers. Zook was asked whether Scheelhaase passed well.
"Sometimes. Last week he did. This week he had a couple passes that were a little errant. I said to Paul (Petrino) sometimes maybe we need to make it a little easier for him. Nathan's so smart, when he leaves the meeting room he knows it. But sometimes knowing what to do isn't enough."
The game plan was designed to emphasize the Illinois running game according to Scheelhaase.
"We just felt we were more physical than them, and it showed up. Late in the game we thought we could be more physical and thought our offensive line could get those guys off the ball. Our receivers really did a great job of staying on their blocks. And we always know with Mikel and Jason (Ford) that we're gonna be able to run the ball. They'll make guys miss or run straight through them."
Leshoure says the attitude on the offense is much better than last year.
"Last year we were playing from behind. It was different. Guys weren't really pumped up, the energy wasn't there. I don't know if people actually believed we could win.
"But this game we were competing the whole game. We had some penalties that stopped us. In the fourth quarter we took those dumb penalties away and said they're gonna have to beat us. When that happens, we generally are gonna be the winning team."
Ford also had a good day running the ball. He gained 24 yards including an 8 yard touchdown run. He also caught one pass. A.J. Jenkins was the leading receiver with 4 catches for 43 yards. Fayson caught two balls. Derek Dimke converted on field goals of 25 and 32 yards.
Offensive guard Hugh Thornton was taken off the field on a stretcher, causing much consternation. But hospital tests all proved negative. He has a muscle strain in his neck. No timetable has been established for his return, but he has no permanent damage.
The Illini defense played great, at times. They shut down talented running back Chad Spann, holding him to 15 net yards in 13 carries. And they had a number of negative yardage plays. But the Huskies came up with several big plays to stay in the game.
With the Illini expecting run in the first quarter, quarterback Chandler Harnish found receiver Nathan Palmer over the top for a 42 yard gain to the one. They scored two plays later. Harnish broke contain on an option and scampered 37 yards for a touchdown on their next possession to give NIU a 12-7 lead.
In the fourth quarter, Harnish burst for 48 yards when the Illini had just taken a 21-12 lead. On the next play, running back Jasmin Hopkins threw a 19 yard touchdown pass to Landon Cox to reduce their deficit to 21-19. That immediately preceded the impressive Illini 63 yard drive to put the game away. Former Illini kicker Mike Cklamovski kicked a 48 yard field goal for NIU go produce the final score.
Without those big plays, the Illini defense might have drawn praise. They hit hard and took the fight to NIU. Middle linebacker Martez Wilson led the Illini with 11 total tackles including a couple tackles for loss. Safety Trulon Henry added 9 tackles, and linebacker Ian Thomas and cornerback Justin Green were credited with 8 each. Cornerback Travon Bellamy continued his fine play by producing a big sack and adding five tackles.
Zook was asked if this was Martez's best game.
"No. I saw Martez miss at least two tackles he should have made. I think Martez is capable of playing great."
After two average games, Wilson feels he is beginning to get back into the flow of the game after sitting out a year.
"It took me awhile, the first two games. This game was definitely a key helper. It let me see what I could be and ways I can improve in areas. I'm gonna watch film and criticize myself to make myself better."
SIU and especially Missouri forced Wilson to play outside the box most of the time with their wide open passing attacks. Wilson prefers lining up against a running team like NIU.
"I do. As linebackers, our first thing to do is stop the run. I have to do my pass cover duty as well, but going against a running team is good. It's fun to play between the tackles."
Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning did acknowledge the Illini's efforts against Spann.
"We kind of had them aware of 28, and we were able to focus on that. Our goal defensively is to stop everything there is and to be able to adjust and stay ahead of them. We did that pretty good second half until that three play drive just when we had some leverage."
Of course he was distraught by the big plays, especially the draws and scrambles of Harnish.
"We had two (players) on the quarterback on almost every play today. Sometimes that wasn't enough. When you have one guy that's supposed to be on the outside and one guy that's supposed to be on the inside, if one of them doesn't do it right it helps a running quarterback.
"You never want to be critical of something until you watch it on film. But when a team runs quarterback running plays, you have to maintain your angles and turn the ball back to where your help is. We didn't do as good a job on that today all the time. They were pretty consistent on running it. When you don't do what you're supposed to do all the time, those few plays get you."
The Illini defense needs the upcoming bye week to nurse its wounds. Koenning say they were at less than full strength going in.
"We have to heal up. We were very fragile going into the game. A bunch of guys with bumps and bruises, strains and fatigue. It's gonna be good to let them rest up a little bit emotionally as well as physically. We need a break. This is an important time to get a break."
Still, the Illini are now 2-1 and gaining respect from the fans. Linebacker Ian Thomas says they need to continue improving, but he's finding it much easier to interact with Illini Nation these days.
"For sure. We feel pretty good when the fans notice it. It definitely feels good to walk around on campus. We've just got to keep playing good."
Zook knows how much improvement is needed in the next two weeks as national powerhouse Ohio State invades Memorial Stadium in two weeks. But he also realizes that all teams must overcome adversity like the Illini did today.
"I think every football team in the country is gonna have games like that somewhere along the line. We have a ways to go before we're a good team. But I think we're making progress. We're going in the right direction. Those are things we'll learn from."
The opening loss to Missouri prevents the Illini from feeling really good about themselves. But the confidence and maturity gained in the first three outings gives them a chance once they enter Big 10 play.
"We could be 3-0 and I would feel a little better," Zook admits. "The attitude of these guys is great. They want to continue to improve and get better. Coaches are doing a great job coaching them. When you get into the Big 10, who knows."