Defense Dominates Illini Spring Game

In a highly competitive ending to spring practices, the Fighting Illini Blue team defeated the Orange 13-12 in the annual Spring Game Saturday in Memorial Stadium. Defense dominated most of the contest, but there were some good plays on offense as well. Rain reduced attendance, but those who witnessed the game had reason for optimism as they await the season.

Nick Immekus hit a 47 yard field goal late in the fourth quarter to give the Blue team a hard-fought 13-12 win over the Orange in the Spring Game. As per pregame agreement, the members of the Blue team will be feted with a steak dinner, while the losers will eat beans and weenies.

Illinois coach Tim Beckman knew there would be problems due to the unfamiliarity of team makeup caused by the draft held Tuesday. But he saw some good things as well.

"It was a little bit sloppy in my opinion, but I did see us make improvements in the offense and defense as we continued to work through the scrimmage."

He got out of it what he wanted.

"We tried to make it as much a game atmosphere as we possibly could. We had some opportunities to run some two-minute drills and do some different things with different people in the game. Throwing or blocking with a different offensive line, pass rush with a different set of four defensive linemen up there. It definitely paid off for us."

Splitting up the team exposed obvious depth concerns, but Beckman knows this will help the team in the long run.

"I think the challenge for this football team is the depth issue I've been talking about all spring. It became evident today as the teams were split up. Throwing the ball to different guys (as one example).

"But if you're going to be successful, you've got to have depth. You've got to have people who can step in if somebody gets injured. And we're going to have multiple numbers of guys playing for us."

The clear-cut offensive star was redshirt freshman running back Josh Ferguson. He gained 168 yards in 20 carries. He also caught 6 passes for 30 yards.

"He really stepped up. He made a couple outstanding plays. He has outstanding speed, great burst. He's definitely a guy that's learning as he goes on. He's still just a freshman."

Ferguson's biggest play was a 68 yard burst that appeared headed for pay dirt until Justin Green caught him from behind. Ferguson said it was the game he hoped to play.

"I wish I could have scored. I was trying to get my stride back. Justin is always getting me. But I'm happy with it."

Michael Buchanan was perhaps the best of the best defensively. The Leo was credited with 4.5 sacks and was a thorn in the side of the Blue team all day. With defensive end Whitney Mercilus off to the NFL, Buchanan feels this year is his turn to shine.

"I do feel it's my time to step up and be that threat on the outside."

He credits his ability to read one certain key for his quick burst at the snap of the ball.

"I do this thing where I actually read the tackle's outside leg. To me, I feel like that moves faster for me than watching the snap count. That's what I do, and it must be working."

Illini quarterbacks had mixed results. First stringer Nathan Scheelhaase struggled much of the day with second string receivers. He completed only 11 of 26 passes for 65 yards. He was sacked twice, but he was upbeat afterward.

"I think it was fun. I think some spring games in the past have been kind of boring. But for us, it was pretty fun out there. With the way it went back and forth at the end, it got really intense. I think everybody was enjoying it. But that's what it's all about. You want to get out there and compete. I think we did a good job of that today."

Reilly O'Toole fared better for the Blue team. He completed 19 of 31 passes for 151 yards and one touchdown.

"There's always things you can work on," O'Toole reminded. "I thought I did okay. I tried to do a good job of leading. You're playing with different faces out there, so you're trying to work out playing as a team. I thought I moved the ball pretty well, but we kind of stalled when we got into the red zone. It was a lot of fun."

O'Toole's stats came despite a heavy rush from the Orange defense, which included line starters Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster and Buchanan.

"It's real tough, but they're great players and you know they're going to be there. It's different when you know you're not going to get hit. I thought our o-line did a good job of containing them."

Miles Osei, who earned the Unsung Hero award for his versatility this spring, played quarterback, running back, receiver and caught punts. He finished with 8 completions in 12 attempts for 115 yards. And he caught four passes for 10 yards. He will do anything to help the team.

"I felt like I did okay. It's fun to play different positions. We made some plays when I was on offense, but we probably could've done a better job moving the ball consistently, especially in the red zone. I think overall, our team did a good job."

Fifteen receivers caught passes. Ryan Lankford gained the most yards of the group with 37 in three receptions. Jon Davis caught three for 25 yards, and he showed his strength and athletic ability by running around and over tacklers for an important ten yard gain. Jordan Frysinger and Peter Bonahoom also had three catches each on the day.

Donovonn Young, Fritz Rock, Matt LaCosse, Evan Wilson, Anthony Williams and Tim Lukas all caught two passes. Terry Hawthorne had one ball thrown his way, but he was wide open in the end zone on a 29 yard pass play.

With both teams running predictable, limited offenses, the defense had a field day much of the time. Redshirt freshman Star Tajarvis Fuller was all over the field and was credited with two tackles for loss. Beckman said he was the biggest surprise.

"He caught my eye today. TaJarvis had the best scrimmage that he's had so far. He's only been here since the middle of January. He's been very impressive, and his game will get better and better."

Other defenders credited for tackles for loss or no gain included Foster, Darrius Caldwell, Houston Bates, Earnest Thomas, Justin Staples, Ralph Cooper, Henry Dickinson, Brandon Denmark, Austin Teitsma and Ben Mathis. Buchanan led all tacklers with 12. Jonathan Brown led all Blue defenders with 10 tackles. Houston Bates had 8 tackles and Fuller 7 for the Orange. Earnest Thomas, Ashante Williams, Green and Teitsma all had six tackles.

Caldwell had two sacks. Jack Ramsey was credited with 3 pass breakups. Thomas, Ashante Williams, Cooper and Hawthorne also broke up passes.

Illini defensive ends are good, but they also exposed weaknesses on the offensive line. Beckman praised his three upperclassmen Buchanan, Staples and Tim Kynard, and singled out a couple youngsters as well.

"Right now, our defensive ends are a step ahead. They do showcase some of the things that they can do. But even their games can get a little better, and they know that. They play with outstanding desire. I thought the young kids Caldwell and Denmark did good too."

Beckman refuses to give up on his offensive line. He will play the five best linemen this fall, and there are still more than four months before the first game."There was a lot of stress on them today. But that's how you get better. It's a challenge to step your game up and make the player next to you better. I think Coach Butkus has done a great job in 15 days. We've got a long ways to go, but we're making strides to get better."

After the game, Beckman handed out awards to the top spring performers. Besides Osei, the Offensive Most Improved Award went to Ferguson. Earnest Thomas was named Defensive Most Improved. The offensive MVP was Graham Pocic. Defensive MVP went to Buchanan. Long snapper Zak Pedersen was MVP for Special Teams.

This game accomplished most of what Beckman and his staff wanted. More than 40 high school prospects made it to town, there were no major injuries, and fans got a brief view of what the team might look like this fall.

The Illini are still in learning mode; they will improve throughout the summer and fall camp. And a good looking group of new signees will join them, with some definitely expected to see playing time. The best part of all is the realization both teams will be united again come fall.

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