Illinois found a way to come from behind to defeat the aggressive Western Michigan Broncos 23-20 in Memorial Stadium Saturday. Illini head coach Ron Zook paid tribute to the team despite not playing its best game.
"It was a somber locker room. But I told the guys, 'Games are hard to win. That was a better game than you can imagine.' I told them in 2007 Ball State came in here and did the same kind of thing. We went on and learned from that, and that's what this team will do.
The Illini didn't quit when things went against them and found a way to win. Zook knows this will help later in the season.
"I think that's one of the greatest things that could have happened. I don't think there's any question teams have to go through that. We don't know what's gonna happen down the road. But there were a lot of teams that would have folded."
Many were concerned the Illini wouldn't be able to play an inspired game one week after their big win against Arizona State, and with Northwestern and the Big 10 season looming next week. Zook was pleased to see his team win when it wasn't at its best.
"I know it's pretty hard to get up for all 12 games. Our guys played pretty hard last week, and you worry about a letdown. It we hadn't fought through the things we had to fight through, that would have been a letdown. Sometimes you have to win games like that. Can you get that high every week? If anyone can tell me how to do that, I'm all ears."
Western Michigan held a 13-10 lead at halftime, and Illini Nation was frustrated and concerned by several plays that went against their beloved. On the positive side, the Illini used their tight ends more, with Evan Wilson catching an 11 yard touchdown pass to open the scoring.
But the UI defense bent repeatedly against WMU's quick passing attack. The Broncos held the ball for 18 plays to score a field goal to tighten the game, and the tone of the game was established.
Donovonn Young ran for 59 yards down to the 9 yard line, but for the first time this season, the Illini failed to score in the red zone. A Jay Prosch fourth and one plunge netted no yardage, and WMU took over on downs. Fortunately, Terry Hawthorne intercepted an Alex Carder pass on the WMU 15 yard line, and a Derek Dimke chip shot extended the score to 10-3.
WMU marched down the field 14 more plays before the UI defense stiffened and forced a 24 yard field goal. After the Illini failed to generate a first down, Carder hit Chleb Ravenell on a 35 yard touchdown strike to give them a lead at the half.
Piling insult on top of injury, starting left tackle Jeff Allen was kicked out of the game on the last play of the half. Zook was unsure exactly what happened.
"They told me that Jeff buried the guy, put his head down. I don't know what the deal is on that. It wasn't dirty, our offensive line just plays very physical. That's what they called, so I'll have to look at it and see."
Allen's replacement is redshirt freshman Simon Cvijanovic, who has had minimal playing experience. Given how well the WMU defense played first half, there was great concern Cvijanovic couldn't hold up. But games like this help coaching staffs learn about players under fire. Cvijanovic played admirably and credited his calm demeanor.
"When it comes down to it, it's not any different than playing against our guys. I just put the crowd out of it and played as hard as I could. I'm one of those guys that doesn't get all pumped up. That way I won't psych myself out. I tried to stay calm and collected."
He helped the Illini offense control the second half and secure the victory according to Zook.
"When we had our backs to the wall at halftime, we came out offensively, even though we didn't score a lot of points, we took care of the football and kept the defense off the field. "It was hard for them to score when they didn't have the football."
The Illini got their running game going, springing Troy Pollard and Donovonn Young to career highs. Pollard gained 133 yards and Young 100, with Young scoring a touchdown.
Zook spoke like a proud papa for both.
"I'm just so proud and happy for (Pollard). He's done a great job. He gained 133 yards. And Donovonn broke 100 for the first time. We need everybody."
Pollard was typically humble about his accomplishment.
"I was just at the right place at the right time. Coach put us in on who was running and what was going on. I'm glad I could contribute to the team."
Jason Ford gained only 23 yards on the ground, but he caught two big third down passes for first downs. Freshman Josh Ferguson tweaked his hamstring during the week. Otherwise, he would have played also according to offensive coordinator Paul Petrino.
"A lot of times, they all get the ball first half. And then whoever we feel is the hottest, they'll get the ball most in the second half. They're all gonna play. It's gonna be a little more by committee until one of them steps up and takes it over."
Petrino agreed with Zook the outcome was especially valuable given the difficulties surrounding the game.
"We gutted out two wins two weeks in a row. That's confidence. We scratched every run we could find. We found a way to win today, and that's toughness. Guys came out and did a good job of finding a way to win. There's years we would lose those games."
The Illini scored on their first second half drive, Young scoring from 14 yards out. After holding the Broncos without a first down on two consecutive series, the Illini put together another drive that culminated in a Derek Dimke 35 yard field goal. WMU came back to tie it, but the Illini scored what proved to be the winning 21 yard field goal after Pollard burst for 49 big yards.
Western Michigan had two more chances. The Illini held them to a three-and-out the first time, and the second began with 1:05 left on the clock after the Illini held the ball on a sustained drive that took nearly five minutes and three first downs. Michael Buchanan sacked Carder to put the final nail on the coffin shortly before time expired.
It was a total team effort according to Petrino.
"The offense and defense helped each other. We all have each others' backs. That's how you become a great team. We've just got to keep it up."
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was surprisingly upbeat afterward despite allowing Carder to complete 30 of 48 passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns.
"Defensively, statistics may lie, but I didn't think we played a bad game. They had 350 yards of offense, but that's their style, that's what they do. I think getting the three and outs in the second half was enormous. I came away thinking they're pretty good throwing the ball, and we did some good things.
"Their passes were rhythmic, and you aren't gonna get to him before he threw. It's hard to pressure and blitz that. That's a hard style of offense to stop."
Defensive end Whitney Mercilus had one of the two UI sacks on the day. He agreed it was frustrating trying to rush Carder.
"They were getting rid of the ball pretty quick. Coach told us to keep coming, and it will be there. They went to the well one too many times, and eventually we got there."
Mercilus says the defense increased it's focus and determination second half.
"In the first half, it was a little bit dead. Our energy level wasn't up to par. But we talked to each other at halftime and came together as a cohesive unit. We came out the second half with a lot more energy."
Buchanan reminded the defense made plenty of mistakes, but he gave credit to the opponent.
"We knew if we played every play like we knew we could, we'd come out victorious. We know we could have played a lot better. There's a lot of things we need to tighten up. We made a lot of mistakes, but it was a learning experience.
"Give a lot of credit to Western Michigan. They have a very good team. We were fortunate enough to get the win."
Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase wasn't particularly sharp, but he was a gamer when the chips were down. He completed 14 of 20 passes for 133 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He also ran for 40 net yards. He wishes the Illini offense was cooking on all cylinders but understands there are always ups and downs.
"Coaches Zook and Petrino said at halftime there are games every year where things don't go your way, and you have to find a way to win. We would have liked to play a whole lot better first half. It didn't happen, and we had to scrap out a win second half.
"Every team who has a great season, at the end you look back and they had one of those, and they found a way to win. It was good to do that.
"We just didn't execute as well as we needed to throughout the game. We knew the blitz looks were coming, and we needed to do a better job of hurting them when they were blitzing."
For the second straight week, Scheelhaase suffered an injury that limited his play. He said the shoulder he injured last week was fine. But he was hog-tied by a blatant face mask penalty that twisted his head 180 degrees.
"It hurt pretty bad. It stung, felt like I got a little bit of whiplash."
Scheelhaase claimed it was fine afterward, but his neck was obviously stiff. Backup quarterback Reilly O'Toole was scheduled to see action anyway, but it became helpful to rest Scheelhaase some second half. O'Toole asserted himself well, completing 3 of 6 passes for 34 yards.
The Illini used the tight ends to the tune of five completions, three to Evan Wilson. Wilson dropped another that would have been a first down. Eddie Viliunas caught a big 39 yarder, and Jon Davis caught one for nine yards. A.J. Jenkins led all UI receivers with 6 catches for 43 yards.
Defensively, cornerback Terry Hawthorne had one of his best games as an Illini, his 9 tackles (8 solo) and 3 pass breakups being team highs. He also had an interception. Ian Thomas had 7 tackles including 2.5 tackles for loss. Tavon Wilson also had 7 tackles. Mercilus and Buchanan each were credited with three quarterback hurries in addition to their sacks.
The Marching Illini also had an impact on the game. Playing a set of chords designed to inspire the team and excite the crowd, they continued their sound into a WMU play and ended up nullifying what would have been a delay penalty. Zook was more pleased than disappointed.
"What they said was that they were playing through his cadence. But I thought it was great. I told them to keep doing it, but don't play through the cadence."
Zook was excited to accomplish the 4-0 start on the season, but the rugged Big 10 schedule looms. From the frying pan to the fire as revenge-minded Northwestern invades Memorial Stadium a week hence.
"I told them I'm proud of them, I'm happy for them. It's something we haven't done since before I was born. But now it's zero-zero. We line up against the Big 10, and any Saturday you'd better be strapped up and ready to go. Anybody can beat anybody."