Illinois controlled the ball on the ground and unleashed two exciting receivers as it compiled 473 yards in a convincing victory over Arkansas State in Memorial Stadium. Head coach Ron Zook was pleased with the result.
"I think there's a lot of good things. This was a good football team. A lot of those guys could play in Big 10, I promise you. Their quarterback is a really good player. We're really proud of our defense for the most part. We gave up a couple there, but we'll learn from that."
The Illini moved the ball in their first series but had to punt. They then went 70 yards in 13 plays, culminated by a 15 yard Jason Ford touchdown scamper to open the scoring. Meanwhile, the UI defense was smothering a highly potent Arkansas State attack. Things were looking up at that point.
However, a wind-aided 67 yard punt downed on the Illinois one yard line initiated a severe momentum shift for the Red Wolves. Ford was tackled in the end zone for a safety, and two ASU field goals gave them an 8-7 lead.
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino feels he contributed to the sluggish offense by trying to establish the run.
"Early on, I was probably getting too conservative and staying in our regular personnel. They were bringing everybody up to the line to stop us. We wanted to definitely establish the run, and we wanted Jason and Jay Prosch to punish their linebackers early.
"We were doing a pretty good job of it, and then they were getting everyone closer to the line of scrimmage. The d-linemen were slanting all the time. They were pressuring quite a bit, so we had to go to the passing game."
"Those two drives at the end of the half, we spread them, went no huddle, and guys made plays."
The Illini went 80 yards in just five plays to regain a lead they would never relinquish. Passes of 14 and 16 yards from Nathan Scheelhaase to A.J. Jenkins and a five yard Jason Ford run set the stage for heroics from sophomore receiver Darius Millines. Taking a flat pass at the line of scrimmage, he spun free from a defender and burst down the sideline for a 45 yard touchdown.
The second half saw Illinois extend it's lead and coast to the finish. On the second play from scrimmage, Scheelhaase found Jenkins isolated against man coverage on a sideline go route. Jenkins was led perfectly, and he sped 72 yards to paydirt to give the Illini a 23-8 lead.
After the UI defense held Arkansas State to one first down, the Illini offense moved methodically downfield for a 14 play score. A 20 yard completion to Millines put the ball on the three, and Ford powered in from there to make it 33-8.
Using ball control again into the fourth quarter, the Illini marched 17 plays from their own 24 yard line to the two, where Dimke kicked a 19 yard field goal for the final Illini score.
ASU moved the ball in a vain attempt to get back in the game, and they finally scored on a Frankie Jackson one yard plunge to make the final score 33-15.
Zook was happy with the effort of the defense. It was especially stingy in the red zone.
"We're really proud of our defense for the most part. We gave up a couple there, but we'll learn from that. We work on red zone defense an awful lot. It's an area that's very important. It don't count until they cross that line, and our guys believe that. We take a lot of pride in red zone defense."
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was disappointed with the last ASU score, but he was pleased overall.
"You never want the last thing that happens is to give up a score, especially when you played so well the better part of the game. We came out and set the tempo of the game, and that was awesome. Some guys played the way we think they're capable of playing.
"We started making some mistakes in the fourth quarter, a backer letting the seam go or a safety trying to go under and make an interception. Some big plays occurred. I think if we would have played the whole game as well as we did first quarter, I don't think they'd have gotten 200 yards.
"I'm disappointed we let them get the yardage we got, but a win's a win. They're an offensive unit that averaged a bunch of points last year, and they have a bunch of the same skill people back. We're happy to hold them to 15 points."
Koenning agreed with the play in the red zone.
"People don't realize that we practice against the red zone more than anything else. Our expectations are extremely high. We're gonna have to be an attack-style defense with a lot of movement and changing coverages. We started off this year doing just that."
The UI offense is expected to perform well all year, but the defense has been a question mark. Koenning has been under intense pressure to create exceptional performance, and he believes it is starting to pay off.
"He who stops everything stops nothing. We're just gonna try to keep working on fundamentals. I know Coach Zook has been tirelessly challenging us every day. As coaches, we worked them about as hard as we could work them. It was good to see some of that hard work pay off."
In an amazing statistic, the Illini were not whistled for a single penalty the whole game. Petrino gave credit to everyone for that performance.
"That's impressive. That's a tribute to all the players. And we didn't have any turnovers until right at the end. If you don't have any penalties and turnovers, you give yourself a chance to win."
Scheelhaase demonstrated his improvement, completing 16 of 23 passes for 267 yards and two touchdowns. And he helped convert 12 of 18 third down opportunities. While he still needs to find the hot read and release the ball quickly on blitzes, he was otherwise efficient. Three sacks prevented better rushing totals, the Red Wolves holding him to 24 net yards in 12 carries.
Petrino praised his signal caller while also noting imperfections.
"I thought Nathan did a real good job in the passing game. There was a couple times in the option zone read he made poor reads. He could have pulled it and run. But I was really happy with him in the passing game. I thought he did a great job today."
Only two receivers caught passes, but both were extremely impressive. Jenkins did what he said he would do. He caught 11 passes for 148 yards. Millines showed Illini fans why he was praised in Camp Rantoul. He gained 119 yards in just five grabs. He broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage to free himself for the 45 yard touchdown, and made a brilliant over-the-shoulder reception for 38 yards to keep a drive alive. Petrino was excited for both his stars.
"A.J. Jenkins made some great catches today. Millines got open a couple times and did a real good job. We feel confident in our core receivers, and Nathan did a good job of getting the ball to them.
"Darius did a good job. He made a lot of plays. He's been making plays all over the place all fall camp. A.J. is improving. His attitude is better. He's trying to take that level from being good to being great. Now he's got to go back to work Monday and keep doing that."
Ford was a battering ram throughout, gaining 86 yards in 22 carries and two touchdowns. He shared time with three other running backs, and all showed glimpses of their potential.
Freshman Donovonn Young ran for 39 yards in six carries, his 24 yarder a thing of beauty that included a quick spin move. Senior Troy Pollard broke free for 23 yards in 2 carries, and freshman Josh Ferguson gained 15 yards in 6 carries while also receiving a four yard pass.
"It opened up pretty clean," Brown remembered. "I just read it clear, I saw that it was a draw."
Koenning recruited Brown out of Memphis, and the young linebacker didn't disappoint.
"Jonathan's a kind of guy we let have a little more freedom than some guys. Sometimes I let him use his natural instincts. His dad was a pretty instinctive player, but his dad doesn't have the instincts this one has. We want guys to fly around and make plays, and Jonathan's learning when to go and when not to go."
Sophomore safety Steve Hull had five solo tackles, as did redshirt freshman linebacker Houston Bates, who had an impressive baptism of fire. Besides recovering a fumble, Bates had five tackles including two for loss and one sack.
Cornerbacks Justin Green, Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne had four tackles each, as did senior linebacker Ian Thomas and Bandit Michael Buchanan. One of defensive end Whitney Mercilus's three tackles was a sack.
In what will no doubt be a controversial decision, both sophomore Miles Osei and true freshman Reilly O'Toole shared time on the last possession of the game. Many wanted O'Toole to redshirt to save eligibility, but playing him has been hinted since the start of fall camp. There was never a doubt in the UI brain trust both should play.
"It was something we talked about, playing both of them together, and not necessarily in that order," Petrino remembered. "We kind of thought about putting in Miles first and running the option, but the play I wanted to call first was that screen. I thought that screen was there all day, and Reilly executes that play real well."
O'Toole completed his first college pass, giving him a boost of confidence. He then got clocked on a blitz and brought home a bruise to show for it according to Zook.
"He did pretty well. He got hit pretty hard, and it was a hot read, so he did the right thing. He dinged his shoulder a little bit, but the doctor didn't feel like it was too bad. He's gonna be sore, and he'll learn from it."
Buchanan had to leave the field late in the game. Zook says he should recover quickly.
"Mike has an MCL, kind of a sprain. He's gonna be sore for a couple of days, but they don't feel like it's gonna be any problem."
Illini players and coaches alike agree: it's great to open the season with a win. Now the team must continue to improve as it prepares to host the South Dakota State Jackrabbits next Saturday at 11:00 am in Memorial Stadium.