Illinois spotted Indiana 10 quick points, 7 on the opening kickoff, and appeared sluggish and confused against an inspired Hoosier group. But the Illini overcame two early turnovers to dominate the young IU squad thereafter. Illini head coach Ron Zook wasn't happy with everything, but he is excited about the perfect start to the season.
"We're finding ways to win. No one gave us a chance to be 6-0, and I'm proud of them for that. Obviously, it wasn't as clean as we wanted it to be. But if we're gonna get to where we want to be, we're gonna have to continue to improve. Now we go back home for a game, and we've got to get that one next week."
Shane Wynn took the opening kickoff 98 yards to give the Hoosiers a quick lead. No one touched him as there was a huge hole in Illini defenses. Zook is frustrated by the play of his kickoff unit.
"We let somebody take a kickoff for a touchdown. That was everybody. It was a bad kick and bad coverage. We'll get that stuff straight. It shows you are making progress when you can overcome that stuff."
That is true, some teams might have folded against IU's solid beginning. Especially when freshman Donovonn Young fumbled on the second UI possession at the 47 yard line and the Hoosiers maneuvered for a 44 yard Mitch Ewald field goal to make it 10-0.
But that is when the Nathan Scheelhaase to A.J. Jenkins connection began to exploit the IU secondary. On third and eleven, Indiana tried a corner blitz, leaving Jenkins wide open downfield. He quickly found his speed too much for a pair of Hoosier defenders, splitting them to complete a 77 yard touchdown to cut into their lead.
The Illini defense then stepped up. Indiana was driving, making it to the Illinois 22 yard line when quarterback Dusty Kiel was hit by Whitney Mercilus, who knocked the ball loose. Tavon Wilson picked it up and rambled 66 yards untouched to give the Illini a lead they would never relinquish.
But that didn't end the suspense. Forcing a punt after the quarter turn, the Illini were pinned at their own 9 yard line. On third and eight, Scheelhaase was hit by Adam Repnogle and fumbled it over to Bobby Richardson to give the Hoosiers great field position at the UI three yard line.
It was then the stout Illini defense showed its mettle, Wilson and Houston Bates making big plays to force a 20 yard Ewald field goal, keeping the Illini ahead at 14-13. Zook paid special tribute to the defense afterward.
"I can't say enough about the defense. They played their butts off. They played extremely well, and I'm very proud of them. The coaches have done a great job of putting them in the right situations. They're performing, and that's what you've got to do. It's gonna take that kind of effort every week.
As good teams do, the Illini responded immediately after the field goal. They marched 74 yards in nine plays, with Jon Davis grabbing a three yard touchdown strike to give the Illini a 20-13 lead. Young, Troy Pollard and Scheelhaase all had big runs during the drive, and Jenkins caught a 25 yard Scheelhaase pass to place the ball three yards from goal. A questionable two point conversion try failed.
Perhaps the drive that put the dagger in the youthful Hoosiers came on the Illini's next possession. Starting at their own two yard line, they needed only five plays to take the air out of any IU comeback. Ford ran for 6, Young for 2 and 18, and Pollard added another five before Scheelhaase found Jenkins alone along the sideline. He completed the 67 yard pass/run TD to make it 27-13 at halftime.
The Illini provided the only third quarter score on their second possession. Passing and running in short bursts, the Illini moved methodically to the Hoosier 9 yard line. Scheelhaase then burned them with a naked bootleg for the touchdown to make it 34-13.
Relaxing with the fourth quarter lead, and mixing in a few second teamers on defense, the Illini allowed IU freshman quarterback Tre Roberson to show his future star potential. The speedy Roberson moved Indiana 85 yards in 12 plays to cut the Illini lead to two touchdowns. Roberson finished 11 for 17 for 148 yards passing, and he added 36 yards on the ground.
Needing first downs to take time off the clock, the Illini offense demonstrated its dominance. Starting at their own 11 yard line, the Illini used ten running plays to snuff out Indiana's last hope. Pollard, who ended the day as the Illini's leading ball carrier with 92 yards in nine attempts, started it off with a big 28 yarder to get them out of the hole.
He later added a 12 yarder before Ford and Young shared the rest of the possession. Ford ran extremely hard all day, deserving the one yard TD opportunity he received to complete the drive.
As the Illini have done so often, they controlled the clock and kept the IU offense off the field much of the game, accumulating 308 rushing yards. Besides Pollard, Scheelhaase ran for 88 yards, Young for 73 and Ford 55. This put a smile on Zook's face.
"That's the big thing, you're able to control the clock. You get 308 yards rushing, that's a pretty good day. We threw the ball when we had to throw it and had a couple big plays again. That's what we've got to have."
Scheelhaase didn't complete his usual high percentage of passes, just 12 of 22. But his completions gained 210 yards, giving the Illini 518 yards of total offense. And 182 of those yards went to Jenkins in just six catches. Scheelhaase gave Jenkins full credit.
"He's fast, he runs routes well, he catches the ball. When you do all those things as a receiver, it makes it easier on the quarterback. He's playing at the top of his game right now, making it tough on any db in the country."
Scheelhaase said the early IU lead was disconcerting, but the Illini are accustomed to battling back from deficits.
"It was execution. When they returned the kickoff, that's not exactly how you want to start the game. You've got to come back from things like that. We've done it all year, and we were able to flip a switch and get it going."
Mercilus had another great game for the Illini. He had three sacks, adding to his Big 10 lead, and he forced two fumbles. He had five tackles, with four of them being for losses of 28 yards. Wilson led the Illini with 11 tackles, four for losses, and added a sack and his fumble recovery touchdown. These two may compete for Big 10 Defensive Player Of The Week.
Safety Steve Hull was second on the team with 8 solo tackles, and he added an interception. Linebacker Houston Bates, subbing for suspended Jonathan Brown, added seven tackles. Freshmen linebackers Ralph Cooper and Henry Dickinson both saw significant time in Brown's absence as well.
The Illini were playing their first road game of the season, so perhaps that contributed to early problems. Regardless, it may be a blessing the Illini can win without playing their best. It gives them room to improve according to Zook.
"We've still got a ways to go. That's probably a good thing because we're not ready to peak by any stretch of the imagination. We've got to go back and have another good week this week. All these games in the Big 10, you've got to be strapped up and ready to go."
Zook made an obvious reference to Special Teams when explaining the required formula for success.
"We've got to be a complete team. For us to be where we want to be, we have to have all the other two phases playing just as well (as the defense)."
Last year, the Illini celebrated bowl eligibility when it was finally achieved. Achieving it at the earliest possible time in 2011 is seen merely as a stepping stone for the rest of the season.
"All that means is you're bowl eligible," Zook reminds. "We've got a ways to go. We're gonna have to keep putting this thing together and getting better."
Scheelhaase says the season is following a script prepared months ago.
"This is where we wanted to be. We wanted to be 6-0 going into Ohio State at our place, and that's exactly where we are. We've done a good job these first six games of finding a way to win and playing well the whole game. We're gonna have to bring it next week because Ohio State's gonna come to our place ready to go. We'll be ready."
Zook is pushing for the first sellout of the year.
"We need everybody there. It will be a big, big game. Our guys are excited about playing Ohio State."