Illini Blow Lead Against Wolverines

The Fighting Illini football team had a glorious opportunity to upset the mighty Michigan Wolverines, but penalties and mistakes nullified an otherwise great effort in a 27-17 loss at Memorial Stadium Saturday night.

Michigan played without star running back Mike Hart, but their other talented weapons got the job done when Illinois gave them repeated chances. Illini Coach Ron Zook was distraught afterward, knowing how close his charges came to victory.

"We had our chances to win, but we let it slip away. You can't have that many penalties and mistakes. We've got to get those corrected."

Illinois got off to an explosive start. Vontae Davis took the opening kickoff back 66 yards to the Michigan 33 yard line, and it took only two plays for the Illini to reach the end zone. Rashard Mendenhall plunged for seven yards, and Juice Williams hit a wide open Jacob Willis off a fake option for the 26 yarder to make the score 7-0.

The Illini defense stood tall against the stout Michigan offense early. A sack of star quarterback Chad Henne by Illini linemen Doug Pilcher and Dave Lindquist resulted in a hand injury for Henne, and he was replaced by raw freshman Ryan Mallett on two different occasions. Michigan became more conservative without Henne, and it seemed everything was going Illinois' way.

Unfortunately, that is when mistakes began to take their toll. Late in the first quarter, cornerback Dere Hicks was called for pass interference, giving Michigan the ball first and goal from the 10 yard line. K. C. Lopata's 25 yard field goal made the score 7-3.

A Jacob Willis fumble on the kickoff and an illegal block penalty forced the Illini to start the next drive on their own 10 yard line near the end of the first quarter. But then the Illini demonstrated tremendous offensive growth by producing the year's longest drive.

Juice was outstanding in his game management, and he was a perfect four for four passing. The biggest play in the drive was Williams' 23 yard burst on an inside option. Mendenhall ran with ferocity on the drive, and his sub Daniel Dufrene scrambled the final 8 yards to make the score 14-3. In all, the drive took 13 plays and lasted 6:23.

Michigan came storming back. Giving up the run momentarily, Henne passed once to Adrian Arrington for 39 yards and three times to Mario Manningham for 40 more, with the last 8 yards producing a touchdown. This made the score 14-10.

Illinois couldn't move the ball on their next possession, and it looked like U-M would do likewise. Consecutive sacks by Doug Pilcher and Dave Lindquist on Henne forced a punt. Trying for the block, Joe Morgan rolled into the punter and was flagged for a major penalty which gave Michigan a first down. Given new life, the Wolverines took advantage and completed an 81 yard drive with a 14 yard pass from Henne to Arrington. This gave Michigan a 17-14 advantage at the half.

The Illini had a chance to tie the game early in the third quarter, but a Jason Reda 47 yard field goal try was just wide, his first miss on the season. Illinois' defense got the ball back when Chris Norwell recovered a Mallett fumbled snap on their own 29 yard line.

Eddie McGee replaced Juice Williams on Illinois' second possession, a preplanned decision by Coaches Zook and Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley. On third and seven, McGee produced one of the Illini's most exciting plays of the season. Scrambling for his life on third and seven, McGee outsped Michigan's excellent linebacker Shawn Crable to the sideline to prevent a sack. Inbounds and still not down, he turned the corner, reversed his field, and ended up with a 16 yard gain and a big first down.

Mendenhall then sped for two consecutive 13 yard gains before Reda made up for his last kick with a 38 yard field goal to tie the game at 17.

The fourth quarter was extremely frustrating for the Illini as uncharacteristic penalties and mistakes gave the Wolverines repeated opportunities. On third and 15, Henne hit Greg Matthews for two yards. However, Vontae Davis was called for a major face mask penalty, a call he complained about vociferously to no avail. Then, on first and fifteen after a U-M false start penalty, Kevin Mitchell was whistled for a late hit out of bounds, giving U-M a free 15 yards and another first down.

Illinois' defense finally forced a punt, but Kyle Hudson fumbled it back to U-M on the 13 yard line. After a two yard Carlos Brown run, Michigan ran a reverse pass play, with Arrington passing to Mario Manningham for the go-ahead touchdown.

"You can't have that many penalties and mistakes," said Zook. We've got to get those corrected."

Illinois still had a chance, but it needed to move the ball and get a tying score. Instead, a Juice Williams fumble and incomplete pass forced a punt. Unfortunately, punter Anthony Santella chose this moment to shank a punt into the wind, and Michigan enjoyed great field position on the Illini 47 yard line. Six plays later, the Wolverines salted the game away with a 37 yard Lopata field goal to produce the final 27-17 result.

Michigan outgained the Illini on the day 343 to 253. The Illini outgained the Wolverines on the ground, but U-M had a big advantage through the air. The strong armed senior Henne was 18 for 26 with one interception and two touchdowns. For the Illini, Williams was 8-14 with one touchdown and one interception at the end of the game. McGee gained 46 yards on 6-12 accuracy.

Michigan's Carlos Brown gained 116 yards rushing on 25 carries as the primary replacement for Mike Hart. Manningham was the receiving star with 9 grabs for 109 yards. Tight end Carson Butler added five catches, and Arrington and Mathews contributed three receptions each.

For the Illini, Rashard Mendenhall earned every one of his 86 yards in 18 bruising carries. Dufrene, Williams and McGee added 21, 17 and 12 net yards respectively. Arrelious Benn caught five passes for 35 yards, while Mendenhall added four receptions for 26 yards.

Antonio Steele was Illinois' tackle leader with 12. Justin Harrison added 9 tackles, and J. Leman and Brit Miller added 8 each. Justin Sanders and Dere Hicks produced interceptions, and Lindquist was credited with two sacks on the night.

The Illini players knew they had a chance to win, so they took the game hard. They put their hearts and souls into their efforts, and it will be tough to bounce back next week. But Coach Zook reminded them they still have only two Big Ten losses, and they have a lot of football to play.

"I told the guys not to hang their heads," said Zook. "They have no reason to be embarrassed. Michigan is a good team. I'm proud of the guys. They were playing aggressive, but they made mistakes.

"You couldn't ask for a better environment, and we look forward to having that same crowd support for Homecoming next week against Ball State."

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