Fighting Illini Coast To Convincing 56-3 Win

The Fighting Illini football team did something Saturday it rarely accomplishes. It manhandled an opponent it was expected to defeat easily. The Illini got off to a quick start and never let up, even when reserves were in the game. The result was a 56-3 conquest of a willing but outmanned South Dakota State team.

Illinois sped out to a 21-0 first quarter lead and continued to add to it. It is now 2-0 on the young season. Head coach Ron Zook took it in stride.

"Winning is a lot more fun than losing. I think our guys feel good about where we are. The feeling in the locker room was good, it was exciting. But they understand we have a long way to go. That's thing I like about it, they're keeping it in perspective. These things build as the season gets going.

"I'm happy for our football team. This is two, but these guys understand we still have 10 more regular season games to go. We have to be ready to play."

After an exchange of punts to begin the game, the Illini got rolling. They went 80 yards in 13 plays despite their first three penalties of the young season. Freshman running back Donovonn Young powered over from the 2 yard line to start the route, his first touchdown as an Illini.

After Trulon Henry stuffed Jackrabbit running back Tyrel Kool for no gain on third and one, the Illini took over on their own 18 yard line. Nathan Scheelhaase optioned to senior running back Troy Pollard, who sped down the sideline 61 yards before being caught from behind. Pollard led all ball carriers with 101 yards in just 8 carries, but he was ribbed about being caught.

"I heard it a thousand times already. Everybody's been telling me he had to make a Superman dive to get me. I thought I was gone, but I've got to get that in the end zone next time."

Zook was especially happy for the oft-injured Pollard.

"I thought Troy Pollard ran well. Troy's been here for a long time, and he's been through a lot of issues as well. I was happy for him, to be able to break things off and do that."

Scheelhaase ran 17 yards on the next play, and Jason Ford reached paydirt from four yards out to make it 14-0. On SDSU's first play from scrimmage, Henry intercepted a Thomas O'Brien pass and scampered 27 yards for his first Illini touchdown. Zook considered that the biggest play of the game.

"That was the play that to me sparked the whole football team. Trulon gets better and better. On Saturdays, he plays well."

Henry agreed, although he admitted it took him a moment to realize his golden scoring opportunity.

"It brought energy to the team. We build on that. I looked around for a minute, then it hit me. I'm glad it came my way."

The play reminded of a similar interception for a score by Nate Bussey against Penn State last season.

"Coach Vic (Koenning) called me Nate Bussey today. He said it was a real Nate Bussey-like play."

The Illini tacked on a four yard Scheelhaase scramble and a 41 yard tackle-breaking burst by Young for their 35 first half points. In between, South Dakota State enjoyed its best drive of the day.

With a long kickoff return to their 48 yard line providing momentum, the Jackrabbits put together two first downs to set up Kyle Harris for a 33 yard field goal. It was to be the only time they threatened the Illini end zone.

Scheelhaase sat out much of the second half, but not before he put together an 81 yard drive culminated with his three yard naked reverse to make the score 42-3. The big play of the drive was a Scheelhaase scramble where he went back and forth across the field before gaining 15 yards.

Backup quarterbacks Miles Osei and Reilly O'Toole took over after safety Supo Sanni intercepted an O'Brien pass at the SDSU 30 yard line. O'Toole completed an 8 yard toss to tight end Evan Wilson for his first ever touchdown after Osei ran 19 yards to earn a first down.

O'Toole became the quarterback of choice from then on, and he didn't disappoint. The freshman completed all nine of his tosses for 50 yards, and he gained 7 yards in two rushes. He calmly led the Illini on a 77 yard drive in 12 plays to their final TD of the day, a 7 yard burst by Pollard.

The offense was dominant, gaining 519 yards of total offense on the day, 364 by rushing. Besides Pollard, Scheelhaase ran for 93 yards in 9 carries, and Young added 65 yards in 7 sorties. Jason Ford gained 48 yards in 11 carries, and freshman Josh Ferguson 38 in 8.

Zook said both Young and Ferguson improved this week.

"I think for both Donovonn and Josh, the more they play, the more they run the football, the better they're gonna be. I noticed they were much better this week than last week. That was probably just first game jitters. But they ran more today like they did at camp than they did last week. That comes with experience."

Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino is excited about the freshmen and the competition at running back.

"I thought they did good. They ran hard. There is nothing better than competition. The more competition we can get at all positions, with guys making plays, that's how you improve every day.

"Everybody stays hungry and keeps battling, not only against the team they're playing against, but also against the guy that's trying to take their catches and runs away from them."

Scheelhaase completed 6 of 8 passes for 102 yards. A.J. Jenkins was the leading receiver with 5 receptions for 71 yards. Darius Millines added 38 yards in three catches. Seven others caught at least one ball.

Petrino was not satisfied with Scheelhaase's running last week, but hard work in practice paid off in all phases of his game Saturday.

"I thought he played a good game. It was good to see Nathan run the ball well. It was something we worked really hard on all week in practice. It was good to see the option game working better.

"I thought he did a real good job getting into our blitz sets. They tried to blitz us a lot, and he got us into some good run checks against it. It was hard to throw the ball more when they kept blitzing, so we went to run checks."

He also liked O'Toole's progress.

"He was real accurate. With the score the way it was, we didn't want him to throw it deep. He did a good job. He executed what we were doing, and now he's got to keep improving."

Experience and success build confidence, which will help as the season goes along.

"No question. It was good to get him in there and take some hits off Nathan. It's the way to get the ball into receivers' hands and let them be playmakers."

As well as the offense played, the Illini defense might have been better. It held a potent SDSU attack to 96 yards of total offense and just 25 yards on the ground. Zook understated the effort.

"They played well. The plays where they did get a few yards, those things are easily corrected."

Defensive coordinator Koenning paid attention to the body language of his opponents and came away with the following observation.

"I don't think South Dakota State expected that, quite frankly. I think they anticipated a fight like they had last year at Nebraska. I think they thought that they could move the ball. And I think they anticipated getting some stops and not letting it get away from them like that.

"I don't really know that I thought it was gonna be like that. I guess that's just a credit to our players to getting ready to play."

In addition to the gaudy statistics, the Illini were able to play a large number of players, including freshmen Ralph Cooper, Henry Dickinson, Valdon Cooper and Matt LaCosse. Koenning hoped to play the first three on defense, and this game allowed him to do that.

"I thought it was good to play a lot of folks and not be upset by the way it ended. It was nice to put in a bunch of young kids in the last part of the game and not let them score. Now we can go home and enjoy it a little bit better.

"Without rewards, it's a lot of work. They've got to have some rewards. Getting to play in a game is a fantastic reward."

27 defenders registered at least one tackle in the game. Ian Thomas, Michael Buchanan, D.J. Woods and Austin Teitsma were all in on sacks. Dickinson, Akeem Spence, Ralph Cooper, Terry Hawthorne, and Craig Wilson added tackles for loss. Henry, Tavon Wilson, Jonathan Brown and Sanni all broke up passes.

On a sad note, the Illini suffered their first major injury of the season, to Zach Becker. The senior tight end had struggled with injuries in the past 18 months, and now his hope of playing in 2011 is dashed.

"I feel awful for Zach Becker," Zook said. "He's a guy that's had some tough times, and now it looks like an ankle (fracture). He'll have to have surgery, so I imagine he'll be out for the year. I told him in the locker room, that's why you play every play like it's your last because you never know. That's the bad part about the game."

Competition for the Fighting Illini increases exponentially this week as they host the nationally ranked Arizona State Sun Devils next Saturday evening. Zook reminds there is precious little time to savor this victory.

"I don't think there's any question next week will be a big test. We'll enjoy today, and tomorrow we'll start on the next team."

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