Illini Get Taste of Winning

Champaign, IL-The Fighting Illini football team celebrated its 2007 home opener by defeating Western Illinois University Saturday in refurbished Memorial Stadium. It wasn't a dominant performance, but the Illini were workmanlike in disposing of a game but overmatched opponent.

A day long drizzle dampened the enthusiasm of the crowd early, but the rain subsided before the game was half over. And the Illini didn't seem to have the intensity they showed against Missouri last week, but that was not unexpected given they were playing a Division I-AA opponent. However, the defense was masterful, and the offense showed some of its potential. Considering it was the Illini's first win in their last nine games extending back to last year, any win is satisfactory.

Western seemed eager to keep their game plan simple, running the ball and keeping the game clock moving, perhaps in the hope of keeping the game close. If the Illini had turned the ball over as often as last week, they might have given WIU a chance to win with this philosophy. But the Illini defense took advantage of this decision and shut the Leathernecks down completely.

"A shutout is what a defense works for," explained Coach Ron Zook. "I'm really getting to the point where I like our defense's intense look. They like that challenge. When we fumbled the opening kickoff (2nd half), there wasn't any panic. Defensive coaches are coaching their tails off and guys are getting into it. They're starting to believe in each other, and that's what you want."

In all, Western Illinois could muster only 152 yards of total offense. They had only four first downs and only one in the second half. Rushing leader Herb Donaldson was held to only 59 yards in 27 carries, and rookie signal caller Matt Barr, who performed so well in their big win last week against South Dakota State, was only 11 for 21 for 71 yards and one interception.

The Leathernecks only threatened offensively twice. Illinois' Walter Mendenhall fumbled the kickoff to start the second half, giving WIU excellent field position on the Illini 36 yard line. But in perhaps the biggest play of the game, middle linebacker J. Leman blasted through to stop Donaldson for a two yard loss on a 4th and 1 play. Leman led the Illini with 11 tackles.

Coach Zook complimented Leman afterward.

"It was good defense. J's a guy who studies the game. He's got a knack for getting after the football."

Co-Defensive Coordinator Curt Mallory echoed Zook's thoughts.

"J brings so much to our defense. He's a phenomenal player, making checks and just being a sound player. He is so valuable to our team."

Leman was animated about his play while deferring credit to the entire team.

"It's not even me right now. When I'm out on the field, I'm in another state of being almost. I don't wish to sound weird. But sometimes I'll look at plays (after the game), and I don't really remember doing much. I'm excited because it was a big time play for our team. They were on the 30 or something, so they could score. We want to do this every week."

The other Leatherneck opportunity came late in the game after a short punt gave them good field position. A rare long completion from Barr to speedy receiver Curt Sims gave them a 26 yard gain. When the Illini defense stiffened, Taylor Rowan attempted a 38 yard field goal. Rowan, who had made all five attempts last week, missed wide right, preserving the shutout for the Illini.

Offensively, the Illini accumulated 400 yards of offense with 282 yards on the ground. Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 139 yards including a 16 touchdown run in 23 carries. This put him over 1000 yards for his young career. Daniel Dufrene added an additional 51 yards in 9 carries. His exciting, tackle-breaking 32 yard touchdown run in the second quarter opened the scoring for the Illini. And rookie Troy Pollard saw his first action and gained 26 yards in four carries. Zook was impressed with all three.

"There was only one run where I thought Rashard should have stuck it, but I thought he did well. I was proud of him. I think everyone can see Daniel Dufrene has another gear, and Troy Pollard has another gear also."

Zook's eyes brightened when referring to Pollard. Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley was also excited about Troy's potential.

"I liked the way we ran the ball today. And the best way to take pressure off the quarterback, we have to run the ball. I liked the way the young guy Troy Pollard ran the ball (in addition to Rashard Mendenhall and Daniel Dufrene)."

Juice Williams played most of the way and struggled at times. He completed 12 of 24 passes for 123 yards and one interception, but he missed some receivers and seemed tight. According to Zook, this was expected.

"I know Juice pretty well, and I kind of knew this would happen before the game, although I wished it wouldn't. Put yourself in Juice's shoes. All of the things being said about him all summer long, then he gets in the first game and gets knocked out and doesn't get a chance to play. Juice wants to play and compete. He wants to prove to people (what he can do).

"Like I told Juice, 'You've just got to go out there and relax.' You can't be tight. You can't force things. That's the thing experienced guys are able to do, just relax and play. I told him 'I don't want you walking out of the lockerrom feeling bad. You know you can do it, we know you can do it.' He's going to get it fixed. It's a learning process."

Locksley had an alternative take on Juice's night.

"I think he (Juice) managed the offense well enough to win. He let the one ball get away on the interception, but otherwise he did well. I don't think he tried to do too much. I should give Western some credit because they came out and executed a pretty good game plan. We expected man coverage, and that is what they had played. They come in and zoned us the whole game, so we had some adjustments on the sideline. That's a tough thing for a young quarterback, when you practice something all week and they come out with a totally different game plan. I think that's what happened to Isiah."

Juice, his left eye still red from the hit he took against Missouri, was honest in his self-analysis.

"I kind of took this as my season opener since I didn't play much last week. I was trying to press too much, trying to be good and trying to do so much so fast. So I had some problems with my reads and hitting open guys. I left a few plays out there and missed a few guys. It's my second game. I have a long road to travel, and I'll just get better from here.

"I'm down on myself a little bit, but I'm going to wash it off. I'll just get back in the film room and correct the mistakes I made. Coming off the injury last week, I was a little self-conscious running the ball, and it kind of had an effect on the entire game including the passing game."

Freshman Arrelious Benn celebrated his birthday by leading the Illini with four catches for 52 yards. He also added three rushing attempts for 38 yards.

The closeness of the game prevented the Illini coaches from getting playing time for a number of their reserves, but some new players acquitted themselves well. Besides Pollard, defensive tackle Josh Brent, linebacker Martez Wilson and cornerback Marcus "Miami" Thomas made their presence known.

Brent, the 310 pound freshman from Bloomington, was credited with a four yard tackle for loss on his first ever play as an Illini. Brent was humble afterward while explaining why he didn't see any action against Mizzou.

"The running back was basically right there in my lap (on his first play). Last week, as the game went on it became more intense, and we needed our experience on the field. It wasn't a time for me to gain experience. It was a game we needed to win, and I don't know if I could have done it then and there."

Coach Mallory was complimentary of his young standout.

"Josh is a great talent, and we're going to need him. It's good to have him in there. He'll be a great player for us."

Martez Wilson has a world of potential, and he is beginning to show what he can do as a special teams player and as a linebacker.

"Martez keeps getting better and better and better," gushes Zook. "He got some plays on defense, and he's doing well on the kickoff and punt teams. The more he does it, the more comfortable he gets. He's going to be a special player."

Wilson made a couple stops on WIU's last possession of the game, and he and Jerry Brown scared Barr into rushing a poor throw to prevent a first down.

"Yeah, I'm more comfortable," explained Martez. It's the second game of the season. I feel way better than high school. As the season goes along, I hope to get a few more plays on defense to show my ability. I know the plays now, so I can just go out there and play instead of thinking. I just react and play now. (At the end) I wanted the sack, but he threw the ball."

Students sitting in the new North end zone bleachers seemed to increase the noise level of the crowd with their enthusiasm. The Block I is now two sections separated by steps, making its halftime performance unique compared with previous years. There were some misplaced cards which will hopefully be corrected with practice. And the Marching Illini performed their famous "3 in 1" at halftime sans Chief and seemed to draw the same loud and reverent response as usual.

This was not Illinois' best performance. It was a workmanlike effort against a fiesty opponent who showed a stern defense and fought valiantly against overpowering odds. But any win is a good win when you are growing as a program. It is something the Illini can build upon. And building is always easier when you have the joy of victory fresh in your mind.

Coach Zook chose to see the positives in the game.

"I was proud of them. We made a lot of improvement."


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