Illinois coach Ron Zook defeated Purdue for the first time in six tries and has now defeated every Big 10 team at least once. He was pleased with the return of the "Cannon" trophy to an Illini display case.
"It was a great win. I'm proud of our guys. Any time you line up in the Big 10, you've got to strap it up and be ready to go. Our guys did exactly what they said they had to do."
The tone of the game was established early. Facing into a strong South wind that gusted over 30 mph at times on the field, the Illini scored two quick touchdowns and held the ball for all but 1:35 of the first quarter. It was the beginning of a long day for the Boilermakers.
With the top two PU quarterbacks lost for the year and third stringer Rob Henry unable to pass due to a finger injury incurred last week, Rochester freshman Sean Robinson was assigned the task of countering Illinois's strong defense. He wasn't up to the task.
The Illini defense held Purdue to 64 yards on the ground in the first half and 205 for the game. Quarterback problems for the Boilers made them easier to defense, but the Illini defense continues to gain momentum. Senior defensive end Clay Nurse said this would happen in the preseason, but few believed him.
"My whole thing was, I can't wait for the season to get here so we can show them. People didn't understand how many weapons we have on defense. I took offense, but I just waited my time and was determined to show them. We want to prove everybody wrong. We want to show you a different defense. We work hard."
Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Akeem Spence and freshman linebacker Jonathan Brown shared the tackle lead with 8 each, and each had a tackle for loss. With Purdue focusing on stopping tackle star Corey Liuget, Spence had possibly his best game.
"Yes, he had a big day," Liuget agreed. "This game, they focused on me kind of hard. But he made up for me not being there. His presence will hopefully free me up for the next game. We keep playing together like that, and I think we should be pretty good."
The Boilermakers scored 10 fourth quarter points to prevent a shutout. They got good field position after a poor punt into the wind, allowing Carson Wiggs to kick a 35 yard field goal. And a rare defensive lapse allowed reserve running back Al-Terek McBurse room to ramble 57 yards. This set up a 7 yard Robinson TD pass to Gary Bush. Liuget says Illini defenders were disappointed.
"We definitely are upset about giving up points. We should have kept playing aggressive. We kind of got happy and complacent, but we're definitely gonna keep grinding. Hopefully we can look for a couple shutouts later in the season. We're that close to it, we smell it. So we're definitely gonna work for it."
Middle linebacker Martez Wilson felt the same way, but the victory is still sweet.
"We just can't let down in the fourth quarter. We have to finish playing the game out completely. We were close to having them scoreless but came out short. But we still got the win. That's what counts."
The most positive development for the Illini Saturday was the improvement in quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. He ran for 118 net yards in 21 carries while completing 16 of 20 passes for 195 yards and touchdown passes to A.J. Jenkins, Mikel Leshoure, Darius Millines and Chris James.
More than that, he did an excellent job moving the team and changing plays at the line to counter PU defensive alignments. Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino said this was the first game Scheelhaase was able to do that extensively.
"They like to do what we call a shark blitz from the boundary. As much as anything, Nathan grew up today because he made checks too, protecting himself. On a number of passes he completed, he changed the protections at the line of scrimmage. That's when you really know someone is (coming of age). He made a couple nice run checks too."
Petrino believes Scheelhaase had tried to do too much in recent games but was more himself this week.
"Me and Coach Brohm went up to him this week and said, 'Remember what won you the job, being yourself. Keep that personality. I think for a little while he got into a couple weeks that he was so worried about doing things exactly right. Just go out and have that fire, have that enthusiasm and be a leader. He went out and just played today. He showed his own personality more, and that helped him."
Zook complimented Scheelhaase, but he also complimented Petrino and his offensive staff for doing what their players do best.
"He played extremely well. He ran the ball well, he threw the ball well. He had four touchdown passes. Nathan continues to get better.
"One of the best things is that Coach (Jeff) Brohm and Coach Petrino know him inside and out. Nathan is gonna do whatever you ask him to do. He's realizing he can just go out there and be himself. That's a sign of good coaching, but that's also a sign of the learning process Nathan's going through."
Scheelhaase sees the growth also.
"Yeah, I definitely felt that. We felt this defense was gonna bring more to the table than Indiana did, so we had to come prepared. I took that on myself this week. With their blitzes and things, if I could get us into the right checks, it was gonna be a big help.
"Coach Petrino and Coach (Chip) Long up in the (press) box did a great job communicating with me what they saw. We changed a lot of protections, and even a lot of run plays."
Purdue worked diligently to stifle Leshoure today, holding him to 23 net yards rushing and two one-yard touchdown runs. He did add 46 yards on two pass receptions, but he would have liked to do more.
"Sometimes it gets frustrating, but it's a part of the game. Defenses are keying on guys who are productive. I've just got to come out and shake that off. It's not something that I pout about. If they concentrate on me, it makes opportunities for other players. As long as our offense is executing, I'm fine."
While Purdue pinched on Leshoure, Scheelhaase ran wild. He was wide open on a number of options and draws, and he consistently found receivers for good gainers. In all, 11 Illini caught passes.
Scheelhaase almost had two more touchdown passes as freshman tight end Evan Wilson and freshman receiver Spencer Harris were stopped less than a yard from paydirt. A.J. Jenkins led receivers with four catches for 46 yards, and Wilson grabbed three.
Illinois was the better team this day, but it also benefitted from several serendipitous moments. As Derek Dimke kicked off into the wind after the first Illini touchdown, his line drive hit a Purdue up-man and caromed back to Nathan Bussey to keep the PU offense off the field.
On a Purdue punt into the wind, the ball floated short and bounced in back of Tavon Wilson. It hit him, but he was quick enough to turn around and grab it before it could be recovered by the punt team. Also, Scheelhaase had to chase down an errant snap in shotgun formation, but the ball bounced straight up into his arms with no real harm done.
The last two years, plays like that went against Illinois almost constantly. They are not situations that can be practiced or prevented. They either go your way or they go against you. It is nice to have some good luck for a change.
"We were extremely fortunate today," Koenning admits. "The score was probably not indicative of the caliber of the two teams. We got blessed today, and things happened our way. We have to hope that keeps up."
While Zook is happy with the convincing fifth win, it was obvious he is concerned about the Michigan game in the Big House next weekend. It was one of the first things he said after the game.
"We can only enjoy this one for a few hours. We've got our work cut out for us next week."
Still, the players believe. They are looking forward to continue their winning ways in succeeding weeks. Scheelhaase knows he and the team could have played better, and they are eager to keep working.
"We always think we can do better. We're hungry. When guys talk about what they could have done better, that's what you want.
"Obviously we feel good about the win, but we have guys that are hungry for that next game to compete and get better. That's exciting. The guys we have have big goals in mind. They believe we can do special things."