The Illinois offense, hampered somewhat by alternating first and second teams every three plays, couldn't generate any sustained offense Wednesday in a controlled scrimmage in the Irwin Indoor Practice Facility. The defense came to play, especially early before the Illini did situational work, when things began to balance out.
With the offense starting slowly and the defense letting up later, Illinois head coach Ron Zook found a teaching moment of value for everyone.
"The defense dominated early. I just told them football is a 60 minute game, and you've got to play 60 minutes. You talk about momentum changes and so forth, I told them, 'If you learned that today, then this was as productive a day as we could possibly have had.'
"It may have been the most productive day of the whole spring because defensively we got after them at the beginning of the scrimmage, before it turned around. The offense has got to understand they have to come out ready to play every day, and the defense has to play 60 minutes. That's real life, that's real football."
Several Illini players sat out as a precaution. Running back is especially depleted; Ean Days and Jay Prosch were the primary ball carriers Wednesday, and neither was listed there to begin spring ball. Zook discussed the status of the running backs for Saturday.
"I think 28 (Troy Pollard) will be ready to go, and I think 23 (Bud Golden) will be better. Jason (Ford) is better today, but I still don't want to take a chance with him. I think Ean Days has a chance to give him some help. He wanted to play running back; he's gonna get a full plate of it. I think Jay Prosch will as well."
Prosch bulled for 13 yards on the second play of the scrimmage, but the defense made several consecutive quality plays after that. Nathan Scheelhaase's pass to Ryan Lankford netted only two yards; D.J. Woods sacked Miles Osei; Jack Ramsey's corner blitz sacked Osei, and he broke up Osei's pass on the next play.
Tavon Wilson and Trulon Henry combined to stuff Days for a two yard loss, and Pat Nixon-Youman broke up a Scheelhaase pass before he finally hit Jake Kumerow for nine yards. Osei ran a draw for five yards and hit Kumerow, who was blown up by Earnest Thomas after a four yard gain.
After three more plays gained only three yards, Scheelhaase was sacked by Houston Bates on a blitz, and he was caught behind the line by Craig Wilson. A Days run netted four yards before Osei was intercepted by Miami Thomas. Supo Sanni had an earlier interception called back by a penalty.
The offense began to generate positive yards after that. Scheelhaase hit Evan Wilson for 8 yards and Lankford for 13. On the next play, Days burst through a big hole on the right side and sped downfield for 41 yards, the biggest single offensive play of the day. Days ran hard and showed good inside vision on several efforts.
The offense finally scored in red zone activity. Scheelhaase hit Lankford, who broke a tackle to score from 12 yards out. Kumerow made a great catch with a defender draped over him to complete a four yard TD reception from Scheelhaase. Days plunged a yard for a touchdown, and Scheelhaase scooted around the corner four yards to paydirt.
Scheelhaase completed 9 of 13 passes for 91 yards and a touchdown. He also gained 23 yards in 8 carries, not including one sack. Osei was an uncertain 3 for 12 for 21 yards, one interception and three sacks. He gained 18 positive yards in three tries.
Days ended with 88 yards in 17 carries and the one touchdown. Prosch was an impressive 24 yards in three bursts before losing ground on his last four tries, ending with 10 yards. Lankford sped 11 yards on a reverse.
Kumerow was the receiving star on the day, grabbing four passes for 36 yards and a touchdown. He showed the ability to hold onto the ball after a hit and the speed to add yards after the catch. He is a definite candidate for playing time this fall.
Besides the defensive plays already mentioned, Tim Kynard had two tackles for loss, and Justin Staples, Craig Wilson, Sanni, Austin Teitsma, Jonathan Brown and Ian Thomas added one each. Brown had a sack, and Miami Thomas, Sanni, Woods and Tavon Wilson each record pass breakups. Wilson had the best hit on the day, separating Viliunas from the ball in the end zone.
Zook is still uncertain what format he will use for the Spring Game Saturday. It is scheduled for 1:00 pm, and everyone hopes for a big turnout of fans to watch their 2011 Fighting Illini in action.