The Fighting Illini football team did what they needed to do in a 42-17 conquest of the Eastern Illinois Panthers last Saturday evening at beautiful Memorial Stadium. Considering all the adversity of recent years and all the newcomers participating, winning decisively is a positive development.
Certainly, there were mistakes along the way, as is true in any first game. And EIU is an experienced, confident team that showed excellent determination and fortitude in the face of long odds against them. Illinois must continue to improve to be successful throughout the rest of the season. But there were a number of positive signs Saturday.
Getting an early lead is always important to establish dominance and put the opponent on its heels, so the 14-0 beginning was good to see. Illinois came out confident and poised, and quarterback Tim Brasic demonstrated maturity in leading the team. His previous experience showed as he led the offense with a power running game and low-risk passing. Tim is much improved.
Pierre Thomas, EB Halsey and Rashard Mendenhall enjoyed open holes all evening as Illinois' quality offensive line wore down the undersized and inexperienced EIU defensive line. It certainly helped that Eastern's all-star linebacker Clint Sellers was knocked out of the game on the opening kickoff, but the outcome would likely have been the same with him as Illinois controlled the line of scrimmage. The Illini's 345 yards of rushing offense spoke well of their efforts to become more than a passing team. The entire offensive line may have deserved a game ball for their consistent play.
There were few long passes, preventing the wide receivers and tight ends from showing all their ability. There was no need to take unnecessary chances with an opponent who could be dominated with a running game. But the receivers showed improved downfield blocking to help Illini ball carriers gain extra yards.
On another encouraging note, true freshman "Juice" Williams saw extensive action and showed some of his vast potential. Entering at the beginning of the second quarter, Juice led the team on a 61 yard touchdown march and contributed running quickness along with a couple short pass completions.
Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley undoubtedly wanted to keep things simple for Juice as first-game jitters can be overwhelming for a freshman quarterback. But fans had to be pleased with Juice's first action, even though he fumbled on his second possession, giving EIU great field position that led to a subsequent score. It was a predictable freshman mistake, but there was much good to go along with it.
While a few might disagree, the Illini defense showed some positives Saturday. Tackling was improved, and there was much more quickness throughout the team. Remembering all the games the last few years when Illinois couldn't prevent first downs, there were several instances of three and out for the Panthers. EIU uses a number of quick pass plays to prevent sacks, they have an excellent offensive line, and Illinois didn't show much of its blitz and stunt packages. So it appeared Illinois had no pass rush. But sophomore end Derek Walker made an outstandingly athletic move in beating two blockers for a sack at an important time in the first quarter, giving hope for the future.
Linebacker Brit Miller had a beautiful interception and showed his speed in closing on ball carriers. Illinois tried four different players at the right tackle position defensively, so that appears to be an area of vulnerability. But overall, the defense made some good stops, especially when they needed to do so. It is a work in progress, but there is definitely progress over last season.
The defensive backfield included two freshmen for extended periods. Vontae Davis started at one cornerback, and no one was surprised EIU picked on him early and often. Vontae made two big mistakes trying to cover 6'-6" Floridian Micah Rucker, a transfer from Minnesota, and the second one led to an easy touchdown. No freshman defensive back is immune to these kinds of mistakes. But the athletic Davis showed continued confidence and later made an outstanding leaping interception in the end zone to stop an important EIU drive to start the third quarter. This play was the turning point, preventing the Panthers from making a game of it.
Fans remember mistakes, and they remember Eastern's Ryan Voss wrestling the ball from cornerback Alan Ball's grasp at the end of an option pass into the end zone. Actually, Ball made an excellent play by not taking the fake and putting himself between the receiver and the ball. It appeared at first he had made an interception, but the 6'-5" Voss was strong enough to steal it away for a touchdown. Ball may have lost the battle, but he made the right play.
The biggest failing in the game was the turnover margin. Illinois' two interceptions were nullified by three fumbles lost. Besides the one by Juice Williams, veterans EB Halsey and Rashard Mendenhall also gave up the ball to give EIU good field position. These fumbles are preventable, so it is hoped there will be no long-term problems in this area. But the Illini went through still another game where they forced no opponent fumbles. This is something that must change to have a successful season.
The punting also had predictable problems as freshman Kyle Yelton was experiencing his first game action. Punting against the wind and probably thinking too much, Kyle averaged only 28 yards on his two punts. He is a much better kicker than that, so it is hoped he relaxes and displays the confidence needed to show his true skills. If not, Illinois will be giving opponents excellent field position far too often. This writer believes Yelton will eventually do the job needed, but only Kyle knows when that will happen.
Besides getting a chance to experience winning again, the Fighting Illini were able to give many youngsters valuable playing time. In total, 13 true freshmen and several redshirt freshmen and transfers saw their first action. For the most part, they acquitted themseves well and demonstrated their athleticism. This experience will bode well for future games. The Illini must have the newcomers play well to win against their rugged Big Ten schedule.
The Panthers deserve a great deal of credit for making the Illini earn their win, and this experience will undoubtedly help both teams in the future. EIU will win many games this year, and we sincerely hope they become a championship caliber team and get all their injured players back again quickly.
That said, the outcome was never really in doubt. The Illini beat a team it was supposed to beat in decisive fashion, and that is an excellent beginning for a young team trying to return to major college respectability. Much improvement will be needed to beat a good Rutgers on the road next week. But most if not all those in attendance Saturday went home happy.
We sincerely hope there are many more happy days in the future.
Illini Take First Step with Win Over Eastern
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