Mendenhall Leads Illini Past Hoosiers

Bloomington, Indiana--The Fighting Illini football team used the running of Rashard Mendenhall and a heady defense to hold of the Indiana Hoosiers Saturday, 27-14, in sweltering heat. The win was the first for the Illini in a Big Ten Conference opener in 13 years, and their three game winning streak is their longest since the Big Ten Championship season of 2001.

Rashard rushed for 214 yards in 27 carries, placing him among national leaders in rushing after four games. He almost single handedly kept the chains moving and the potent Indiana offense off the field. Head Coach Ron Zook and Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley praised Rashard afterward.

"What we all saw today (from Rashard) was a little bit more toughness," said Zook. "He's not running out of bounds, he's running like a big, strong back. He's done a nice job, and I'm really proud of him. I told him before the game to put this team on his back and carry it."

Locksley used the word "unbelievable" to describe Rashard's day. "Obviously, his production is matching his potential. He's played three great games for us, and he's a guy who wants to make sure he carries us for awhile. I think our guys up front should get a lot of credit. Those guys are getting big creases and seams up the field for him, and Rashard is doing a good job of finishing his runs down the field. He's a guy who came in with big play potential, and he's living up to our expectation of him."

Rashard shared the praise with his offensive linemen.

"I think our offensive line has been doing a great job. I'm a little tired, especially because of the heat being a little hotter than normal. Our trainer kept up with us drinking fluids, so I feel pretty good."

Juice Williams had only an average game by his standards. He had some shaky episodes but then demonstrated great skill at other times. He is typical of young players with extreme ability. They continue being up and down until they can harness their vast abilities into one package.

Statistically, Juice was 13 for 28 for 98 yards and two touchdowns to go along with two interceptions. And he ran the ball to the tune of 37 yards on 11 carries. He ran the team well and led them on a couple of decisive touchdown drives at important moments in the game. But there is also no question he left some plays out on the field.

Coach Zook gave his impressions of Juice's day.

"Juice had some drops early, and then he started forcing it. Before the game, he was throwing well. But Kyle dropped one, and Joe dropped one or two. That's going to happen, but he's got to forget about that and keep on playing. I thought he ran the ball well, although I thought he kept it a couple of times when he should have given it, particularly with the way Rashard was running. Our offensive line did a great job, and we were able to run the football."

Locksley's thoughts on Juice coincided with Zook's.

"I thought Juice had a pretty good day. Obviously, there's some throws I would like to see him make, and a couple of throws I needed him to take back. The interception down inside the red zone area is a no-no. He knows it, it's something we can't do. It will come back to haunt us against the best teams."

Defensively, Illini bent but didn't break in the face of three outstanding offensive stars for the Hoosiers. Quarterback Kellen Lewis is Indiana's Juice Williams, and he had a highly productive day both passing and running. He ran the ball 17 times for 93 yards, mostly on scrambles, and he was 26 for 52 passing for 263 yards and two touchdowns.

Coach Zook was effusive in his praise of Lewis.

"He's a great, great football player. He has no reason to feel bad about his game. Someone had to lose. I was real impressed the way he ran the football, the way he threw the football. But I am also proud of the way were able to contain him just about as well as he can be contained."

Co-Defensive Coordinator Curt Mallory described more specifically what Illinois did to contain Lewis.

"We tried to get some presence up the middle, and not let him (Lewis) run up the shoot. I can't say enough about him."

Will Davis was one of the defensive stars for the Illini as he was credited with four sacks on Lewis. Davis needed all his speed to contain Lewis.

"We basically took them upfield and tried to bull rush every time. That way, we have a two-way go for whether he goes inside or outside us. When we get coverage sacks, we make them think a lot more about getting the ball off. If the db's stick with their receivers, we told them we would be there."

Vontae Davis (no relation to Will) also had a big day for the Illini defense. He blocked a punt early, made several important tackles including one for a loss, covered star 6'-7" receiver James Hardy effectively, and ended the Hoosiers' last threat with an interception in the end zone. Hardy had six catches on the day with one touchdown, but his 42 receiving yards were far below his potential.

Coach Zook challenged Vontae before the game.

"Vontae did a great job. Hardy had one catch in the first half, and I think he had five in the second. But I thought Vontae did a great job on him. Before the game, I said 'Vontae, he (Hardy) is going to be playing in the NFL. If you want to play in the NFL, then you need to go get him.' I thought he did a nice job on him."

Vontae was humble afterward but confirmed the conversation with Zook.

"Coach Zook told me he needed his best players to play. I just played to the best of my ability. Coach Zook said, if you want to be a good player, you've got to forget the last pass, just get it out of your head and look to the future. The defensive line did a good job of making Lewis move in the pocket. That was the key."

A big factor in the outcome was the ability of the Illini defense to stop the rushing of super fast running back Marcus Thigpen. He gained only 25 yards on eight carries. Without a rushing attack, Indiana was forced to have Lewis do everything. The defensive line and linebackers saw to it that Indiana would be one-dimensional.

"Running around out here gets you worn out quick," said Norwell, responding to a question about the extreme heat. "We have a lot of guys who can come in and play and do a good job."

Middle linebacker J. Leman led the Illini with ten tackles, but he also shared the spotlight.

"Kellen Lewis is such a competitor. He did such a good job. We gave some confusing looks to him. Will Davis and our d-line did a great job."

Coach Zook summarized the work of the Illini defense.

"No question, I thought the defense did a great job. The defensive line did a great job. I don't know how many sacks Will Davis had (4), but they had some problems trying to contain him. It's so hard for those guys. We had to stay in coverage because he (Lewis) also can throw the ball. A guy who can run and throw like that really puts a lot of pressure on the defense."

Illinois opened the game trying to complete some long throws to spread out an Indiana defense that tries to load their players close to the line of scrimmage to shut down opponents' running games. Juice's first two long passes didn't succeed. In fact, the first was intercepted by Indiana star cornerback Tracy Porter, but they served a purpose according to Locksley.

"I think anytime you take a couple of shots down the field, it loosens the defense up. Obviously, it's something we need to be able to do. People are going to continue loading up the box, and we will need to make a play or two down the field to loosen up some of that."

Some might have been questioning Illinois' early play calling, but the ultimate success of the running game may have, in part, been due to Indiana's concern about the deep pass. One unintended drawback was the shaky first quarter shown by Williams. It appeared his early failures caused him to tighten up. Sometimes he didn't square up to throw, and his passes were offline. And Rashard twice had to make great one-handed grabs of errant pitchouts. But Juice settled down later.

Illinois' second and third possessions began to show more of their vaunted running game, but errant Juice throws and a couple of drops led to two successful Jason Reda field goals to make it 6-0. Indiana had moved the ball effectively, to this point, but each time the Illini stiffened before Indiana could dent the scoring column. In the second quarter, Rashard began to assert himself, and Juice finally found some rhythm.

Illinois marched 80 yards in a 12 play drive that took 4:27 to complete to give them a 13-0 lead. On consecutive plays, Rashard ran for 2, 11, and 6 yards; Arrelious Benn ran for 6 yards; Troy Pollard ran one yard; Juice completed a 10 yard pass to Benn; Rashard ran for 11 and 7 yards; Juice threw to Benn for 4 yards; Pollard ran for 16 and 3 yards; and Juice found tight end Michael Hoomanawanui wide open in the end zone for a two yard touchdown. It was Michael's first college touchdown.

"It was an easy score," said Hoomanawanui. "I wasn't going to let another one get away, and it feels good. It's a type of play that should work every time."

Juice Williams was happy to involve the tight ends in the offense.

"It made me feel good that (Hoomanawanui) got the first one of his career. It's a lot easier (to throw on the goal line to the tight end) because everyone's keying on number 5 (Rashard) and our other players."

Indiana finally dented the scoreboard late in the first half. The touchdown was a 7 yard pass from Lewis to Hardy. But the Illini then demonstrated a trait common to quality teams. It took the subsequent kickoff and marched quickly (1:14) down the field to score again before the half, nullifying any momentum advantage the Hoosiers might have gained with their score.

To summarize that imporant 68 yard drive, Juice passed to Benn for 9; Rashard ran for 8; Juice passed to Benn for 13 and to Will Judson for 7; Rashard ran for 3; Juice passed to Benn for 18; Juice threw incomplete and then passed to Rashard, who ran the final 15 yards to the end zone to make the score 20-7 at the half. Indiana was a worn out football team.

The third quarter saw no scoring, but it was still eventful, especially for the Illini. Their defense was stifling, forcing the Hoosiers into one three-and-out after another. A Vontae Davis punt block gave the Illini the ball at the Indiana 25 yard line. Just when it appeared the Illini might salt the game away, an errant Juice toss was intercepted by Porter, creating a huge momentum swing for Indiana.

Again, as good teams will do, the Illini defense may have had its best series to neutralize the momentum. On first down, Brit Miller blitzed Lewis, harrassing him into making an errant throw. Lewis then passed to Hardy, but the defense stopped him immediately after only a five yard gain. And then Will Davis took over and threw Lewis for a three yard loss.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Hardy received a pass from Lewis and then fumbled it over to Dere Hicks at the Indiana 27 yard line. Mendenhall ran five straight times to cover the yardage, giving the Illini an insurmountable lead at 27-7.

Indiana wasn't through, and Lewis scared the Illini fandom with reminders of how former Indiana star Antwaan Randle-El singlehandedly overcame a huge Illini lead in the fourth quarter to win a few years ago. Lewis hit James Bailey for a 30 yard touchdown, and Indiana was back in the game at 27-14.

From then on, the Illini defense allowed short plays but denied long gains. Indiana ended up outgaining Illinois 397-386, but Illinois won the game.

There were a number of additional heroes for Illinois. Punter Anthony Santella had his first good day as an Illini, averaging 41 yards per punt while downing two punts inside the ten yard line. Arrelious Benn caught five passes for 50 yards. The offensive line gave up only one sack to a team that had 17 in its first three games. Troy Pollard ran for 32 yards in six tries, although he was later injured and may have a serious knee problem.

Defensively, besides the two Davises, Mike Ware, Justin Sanders and Doug Pilcher had sacks. Chris Norwell and Derek Walker both had tackles for losses. Justin Harrison had seven tackles and a fumble recovery. Martez Wilson played more at WILL linebacker, and his speed helped contain Lewis. The entire defense deserves credit for the win.

Coach Zook was both happy and relieved with the win.

"It was obviously a big win for us. We haven't beaten Indiana since we've been here. We were able to get off on the right foot. I'm proud of our players. I thought they played extremely hard. It was a great football game, a typical Big Ten game. As we told our players during the week, they were going to see a lot better football players than what they had seen. And I just think we were able to get off on the right foot in the first half. And then we finished strong in the second half."

Now, the Illini get to come home for two games after traveling two straight weeks. And Coach Zook made special note of that fact.

"I don't know when I've every been so excited to come back home to play. We're coming home for two games, and it seems like it's been a long, long time since we've been back in our stadium. We're going to be playing a great football team, a nationally ranked team (Penn State). It's a great opportunity, hopefully in front of a full house.

"Three game winning streak. I'm proud of them. One thing about the Big Ten, you get happy and start thinking you're pretty good and then have problems. It's a humbling game, and it will bring you right down to your knees if you're not careful. So we told our team to enjoy the next 24 hours and then get ready to work hard again."

The star of the day was Rashard Mendenhall, so perhaps his thoughts on the season so far and what lies ahead best summarize a good day for the Illini.

"Coach Zook always talks about believing. And just knowing we have a three game winning streak, and getting that first win in the Big Ten, now we're starting to see it. We're starting to see the hard work pay off.

"We're going to keep rolling with that. On any given Saturday, anybody can win. We felt we should have beaten them (Penn State) last year. But that didn't mean anything because we lost. Like Indiana week, we're trying to get better as best we can, and go into the game with the mentality we're going to win."

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