Illini Shock Everyone but Themselves

The Fighting Illini football team shocked everyone but itself by defeating a talented Michigan State squad 23-20 on their Homecoming last Saturday. Suddenly, new possibilities excite the imagination and give inspiration for the future. Illinisports reports on the happy results in this article.

Euphoria. Relief. Joy. Disbelief. Illinois fans went through the entire scale of emotions while watching their beloved Fighting Illini football team overcome a series of winless streaks by spoiling Michigan State's homecoming Saturday 23-20. The weight of the world now seems off Illini shoulders with a win that might mark the beginning of a new era of Illini football excellence.

The victory ended a streak of 15 straight Big Ten losses, giving Coach Ron Zook his first conference win in this his second year at Illinois. It ended a streak of 9 straight losses to Michigan State dating back to 1992 and countered a frustrating mauling meted out by the Spartans at Memorial Stadium last year. It ended a cycle where the Illini had only enjoyed one victory in their last 24 Big Ten games. And it reversed the misery of Illini fans, some of whom were already assuming another one-win season.

Yes, Michigan State came out flat, a predicted sequela to their heart-breaking last second loss to Notre Dame a week earlier. Yes, Coach John L. Smith seemed to limit his offense, as if assuming he could run over the Illini without using riskier plays. Yes, the Spartans suffered a series of injuries that hurt their chances. They lost their speed back Javon Ringer and senior offensive lineman Daniel Zynn in the first half, safety Otis Wiley in the second half, and star quarterback Drew Stanton near the end of the game. Yes, superstar receiver Matt Trannon played sparingly while resting a hamstring injury.

But the Illini deserved this victory. The Illini kept fighting through adversity and pulled out the win with a late score after seeing Michigan State rally to tie the game. This was no fluke. Illinois fought all the way and responded to whatever the Spartans threw at them.

Some media talking heads must have lost money on the Spartans the way they are minimizing Illinois' accomplishment, but Illini fans who watched the game know better than to believe them. MSU didn't lay down and hand the game to Illinois, Illinois took it from them.

There were so many key plays, so many star performances it is difficult to list them all here. The entire defense performed admirably throughout the game and held the Spartans considerably below their average running and passing yards. MSU ended 216 yards below their offensive average, and their vaunted rushing game was limited to a paltry 82 yards.

J. Leman is starting to look like a Big Ten middle linebacker with one quality play after another. As just one example, he disrupted an important third down play by diagnosing a sweep and then penetrating several yards into the Spartans' backfield to throw the ball carrier for a loss. It is exciting to see an Illini linebacker make a play behind the line for a change.

Defensive linemen Chris Norwell, Derek Walker, Dave Lindquist, Josh Norris, Doug Pilcher and Will Davis all made big plays. Justin Harrison used his helmet as a battering ram to force Stanton into fumbling near the end zone to stop a likely MSU touchdown. Cornerback Vontae Davis forcefully dislodged the ball from a receiver before he could secure possession. And the defensive backs in general covered enough of the field to help Illini rushers corral five important sacks.

Offensively, Juice Williams showed maturity far beyond his years in leading the Illini with a minimum of mistakes and only one interception. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley tried to limit the play calls to help Juice, especially deep in Illini territory against the wind. But Juice made the plays that needed making, both with his arm and his feet, to keep drives going. And he was especially cool in the last minutes as he led the Illini 59 yards down the field to set up Jason Reda for the game winning field goal. Reda came through in outstanding fashion by going 3-3 in his field goal attempts.

Juice also seemed to pass with more touch on this day, making his balls much easier to catch. And Illini receivers responded by making the big catches when needed. Jacob Willis had both Illini touchdowns, showing his continued improvement. One of those passes was delivered by running back EB Halsey on a reverse, who made a perfect toss to the wide open Willis. Kyle Hudson grabbed three clutch passes during the last drive. Derrick McPhearson didn't catch any passes this day, but his 16 yard run on an end around in the second half helped lead the Illini on an important touchdown march to counter the quick score MSU achieved on Demond Williams' interception runback of a Williams flat pass.

The Illini offensive line also played extremely well against an athletic Spartan defense. Jim LaBonte must be singled out for his effort in replacing the injured Akim Millington at left tackle. He and his line mates gave Juice time to make his throws, and they helped open holes for Pierre Thomas and Williams to run. Pierre had 110 yards rushing and Juice 103 as each had more yardage than all the MSU backs had combined. Illinois ended with 131 more yards of total offense than the Spartans.

The Illini were expected to play conservatively, both to reduce pressure on Juice and to keep the score close in enemy territory. Eventually, Illinois will open things up more, once Juice feels more comfortable reading defenses. But on this day, field position, a consistent running game and clock management played significant roles.

Illini coaches must be commended for their preparation. On the game-winning drive, the Illini looked initially like they were trying to run out the clock to get to overtime. But they demonstrated outstanding coaching by methodically moving the ball down the field, saving timeouts until the important last few seconds. It was a thing of beauty. And defensively, coordinator Vince Okruch and his staff did a bangup job of preparing their charges for the spread offense MSU uses so effectively.

This game reminds this long-term observer of at least two other situations where the Illini ended long losing streaks. In 1962, when Dick Butkus was a sophomore and Jim Grabowski was a freshman and ineligible for varsity action, Illinois was in the midst of a 15 game losing streak when they met Purdue at West Lafayette. The resulting 14-10 upset win set the stage for a subsequent home win over Michigan State to end that season and a glorious Big Ten and Rose Bowl championship in 1963.

On October 3, 1998, almost exactly eight years ago, Illinois traveled to Northwestern to face the Wildcats with raw freshman Kurt Kittner starting his first road game. The Illini were facing a 1-20 streak of losses in their second year under Ron Turner, their only win coming over Middle Tennessee. Kittner helped lead the Illini to a 13-10 victory.

While they were to win only one more game that year, the experience helped propel the Illini to an 8-4 record in 1999, culminating in a big victory over Virginia in the Micronpc.com Bowl. And when Kittner was a senior in 2001, the Illini won the Big Ten Championship and played LSU in the Sugar Bowl. If Juice Williams can match Kittner's achievements, all Illini fans will be ecstatic.

Everything looks good with a win, and everything looks bad with a loss. The Illini made some mistakes, and they still have some weaknesses that need to be strengthened both through more training and more recruiting. But the future is looking much brighter now than it did just two short days ago.

The wife's first words after the game were, "Maybe now we can win three straight games." Indiana and Ohio University will be visiting Memorial Stadium the next two weekends, and Illinois can win those games if it plays its best. But Illinois cannot afford to look ahead farther than their next opponent, and neither can its fans. It is hoped the Illini will keep a level head and not take any opponent lightly. One win does not place Illinois among the nation's elite. It must bring its best game every week to have a chance for more wins.

Let's enjoy this win. Let's take a few deep breaths and allow the misery and bad memories of the last few years to seep from our bodies. But there are still some great teams ahead of us on the schedule, and anything can happen. Illinois can have a good season and set a firm foundation for an excellent future. But hard work and complete dedication to the cause are essential.

Illinois still needs to learn how to win and eventually how to dominate. The players still need practice on how to handle post-game celebrations without showing up their opponents. And they absolutely must learn quickly how to become emotionally and physically prepared for every game and not come out flat as often happens after an exciting win.

But this is an important win that will give the Illini strength and confidence to aid them in future encounters. At this point, that is the best we can ask.

Congratulations Illini, and Halleluia!!!

Illinisports, illinisports@illiniboard.com


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