Offense And Defense Show Well In Finale

The Fighting Illini football team concluded 15 spring practices with its annual Spring Game at Memorial Stadium Saturday. Rains that had spoiled three previous practices this week departed in time for a warm and pleasant day. Using a scoring system rather than a regulation game, the offense defeated the defense 26-21.

Illinois head coach Ron Zook was pleased with the scrimmage, especially the first half. More than that, he feels the entire spring was productive.

"I thought the first half of the spring game was pretty good. Second half was a little bit sloppy, but that's probably to be expected.

"That's 15 good practices. I feel very good about this spring and what we've accomplished. A lot of the things we wanted to get accomplished we did."

Awards were handed out at halftime. The Most Improved player on offense was receiver Ryan Lankford. On defense, Most Improved went to SAM linebacker Ashante Williams. Tight end Eddie Viliunas was the Most Improved walkon. In addition, guard Hugh Thornton and Houston Bates were sited as giving the best effort on offense and defense respectively.

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and defensive tackle Craig Wilson were honored with the Faculty Award, given for exemplary leadership in community, classroom and on the field. Zack Becker earned the Chancellor's Award for Academic Excellence.

The first string offense marched 80 yards against the wind in its first drive against the second team defense to score the day's lone touchdown. Scheelhaase completed four of six passes for 43 yards, and running back Ean Days gained 26 yards in 6 ground sorties. He scored from one yard out.

Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino was pleased with the first drive.

"I really liked the first drive. I thought we moved the ball real well and converted some nice third downs."

The points for first downs, touchdown and extra point earned by the offense gave them a commanding lead they never relinquished. Of course, what's good for the offense is bad for the defense. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning lamented that fact afterward.

"Any time you have a scoring system, it's like that first drive. They got twelve points. I don't know how many plays were in the drive, but the twos were kind of ragged and made mistakes. But that's why they're the twos, and that's why they need the reps."

Koenning was also frustrated about the subjective officiating needed to protect quarterbacks. They could not be tackled, so at least two sacks, by Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan, not called.

"I was frustrated we had a hard time finishing plays on the quarterback. That's hard to do when you've got that fine line. Are they live, or are they not live? That becomes an issue.

"When we played base stuff, we were vulnerable. We didn't play as well as when we were attacking. So we kind of stayed on the attack for awhile."

The Illini kept their offense and defense simple to prevent scouts from getting a clear view of their plans. The offense was also hamstrung by injuries that prevented standouts A.J. Jenkins, Darius Millines, Jason Ford, Troy Pollard and Corey Lewis from participating. And running back Bud Golden was not back to full strength after a foot injury.

Despite that, fans got to see enough good things to remain hungry for more. Scheelhaase completed 9 of 15 passes for 90 yards. His lone blemish was an interception to Miami Thomas. Backup quarterback Miles Osei also had a positive completion percentage, hitting 8 of 13 for 76 yards. Scheelhaase also had runs of 32 and 14 yards.

Days ended with 67 yards in 20 carries. Golden added 25 in 9 tries. Spencer Harris caught 5 passes for 35 yards. Lankford produced 50 yards in four receptions. Jake Kumerow added 26 yards in two grabs, while Golden gained 18 in two tries. Anthony Williams caught a 19-yarder along the sideline. And Days, Viliunas and Justin Lattimore caught one ball each.

"I thought Nathan played good with the exception of the one interception," Petrino recalled afterward. "He got a little greedy and just needed to give it to Ryan underneath.

"I thought Ryan Lankford played good. I'll have to go back and see, but I think our line blocked well. We had some nice holes. We were a little bit depleted at the skill positions. I thought there were a couple times we could have made some big plays, but we didn't necessarily make them."

Zook also praised Lankford.

"There's a reason he was Most Improved Player. He's had a great spring. He's a guy that comes to work every day, and he's always got a smile on his face. He's going to be an awfully good player for us."

Thomas added two pass breakups to his interception. Pat Nixon-Youman, Justin Green and Jack Ramsey all broke up passes. Ramsey enjoyed an impressive 19 yard punt return.

Jonathan Brown, Earnest Thomas, Glenn Foster, Ashante Williams, Alex Porter and Buchanan all had sacks. Brown and Buchanan also had two tackles for loss each. Others with TFL included Craig Wilson, Beau Sullivan, Porter and Spence.

Zook and his assistants were especially pleased to conclude the spring with no new major injuries. Safety Supo Sanni injured his wrist, but it doesn't appear serious according to Zook.

"They X-rayed Supe's wrist, and I think he's all right. That's the only injury we have."

Illinois players must now work on their own until Camp Rantoul begins in August. As Zook reminds, the players must remain highly motivated during this time.

"This next phase until August is gonna be critical, that we continue to improve. If we do that, then I think we have a chance to be a respectable football team."

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