Illini Gain Win, Become Bowl Eligible

The Fighting Illini football team became bowl eligible for the first time in six years with a hard-fought 28-17 Homecoming victory over a quality Ball State team Saturday at Memorial Stadium. A major milestone has been reached and a big weight lifted from Illini players and coaches with this victory.

It wasn't always pretty, but Illinois did the job when most needed. Coach Zook felt his charges learned a great deal from this game.

"We have made progress. We had to grind it out, and we didn't give in. We might have lost this game if it were earlier in the season. We learned we have to play at a top level every week."

The offensive stars for the Illini were running back Rashard Mendenhall and quarterback Juice Williams. Mendenhall rushed for 189 yards in 28 carries and scored two touchdowns. Juice ran for a net of 99 yards and two more scores while completing 7 of 15 passes for 145 yards. Both were outstanding when needed most.

The weather was overcast, cool and misty with a brisk Northwest wind, and both teams seemed as depressed by conditions as the fans. No one scored in the first quarter, although the Cardinals' Jake Hogue did miss a 35 yard field goal attempt. Illinois finally got untracked with a quality drive that began at the end of the first quarter.

Rashard and Juice did most of the damage with excellent running. Mendenhall especially ran with power and determination to get Illinois on the scoreboard. His two yard run completed the ten play, 77 yard drive to make the score 7-0.

Ball State quarterback Nate Davis was a thorn in Illinois' side all day, completing passes and converting third and long situations into first downs by scrambling for good yardage when his quick receivers were covered. Davis responded to the brief Illinois lead by leading his team into position for a 29 yard Hogue field goal to make the score 7-3 at the half.

The sun finally peeked through just before halftime, and it seemed to inspire both teams as much as the fans. Unfortunately, the first beneficiary was the Ball State defense. Juice tried to lob a swing pass to Rashard that was a little high but catchable. The Cardinal defense was poised to stop Mendenhall for a loss, so Rashard tried to make a cut before securing the ball. It bounced off his hands into the waiting arms of linebacker Mike Dorulla, who returned it 43 yards for a touchdown. The resulting 10-7 score was Ball State's only lead of the game.

The Illinois offense then took charge, determined to make up for its earlier mistake. With the offensive line leading the way, the Illini marched quickly down the field, covering the 65 yards necessary for the go-ahead score. A Juice swing pass to Arrelious Benn netted a big 25 yards, running back Daniel Dufrene had three important carries for 18 yards, and Juice ran for 21 yards in three carries. Williams' 10 yard scamper gave Illinois the lead back at 14-10.

A good defensive stand gave the ball right back to the Illini offense with good field position at their own 42 yard line, and they rode the continuing momentum to another important score in only three plays. Juice ran for six yards on first down, and then he made an exceptional play. Hit from behind and almost sacked, Juice wriggled free and proceeded to scramble for 22 yards. Taking Juice's lead, Mendenhall then swung wide at the 30 yard line, broke a tackle while cutting downfield, kept his balance and sped into the endzone to make the score 21-10.

Illini fans hoping for a chance to relax were disappointed to find Ball State coming right back. With Davis at the helm, the Cardinals are never out of any game, and they proved it by covering 76 yards for a score. Davis completed seven straight passes in the drive, the last being a 24 yard touchdown strike to tall tight end Darius Hill.

With the score now a nervous 21-17, the Illini were unable to move the ball and gave it right back to the Cardinals. Two big scrambles by Davis on third and long situations, one for an impressive 46 yards, carried the ball downfield on what appeared to many to be a lead-changing touchdown drive. Finally, defensive end Doug Pilcher sacked Davis, and his third down pass fell incomplete. Hogue then missed his second field goal on the day, this time from 26 yards.

Illinois' offense again showed its mettle, barging downfield rapidly to add what would prove to be the game-clinching score. They traversed 80 yards in only five plays, the big one being a 56 yard pass and run from Juice to Benn. Juice stood tall in the pocket and confidently waited for Benn to complete his intermediate route. Benn then flashed his speed and strength, finally stepping out of bounds on the four yard line. Juice's two runs converted the remaining distance for a 28-17 lead.

Ball State still had its chances, but the Illini defense stiffened when it had to do so. Kevin Mitchell dove to intercept an errant Davis pass to prevent one drive. And after Mendenhall suffered his first fumble of the season, the Cardinals could gain only one yard in three plays. Brit Miller made a key tackle for no gain on first down.

Given the ball back at their own 10 yard line with 8:41 left in the game, it was Illinois' task to make some first downs and run down the clock to keep Davis and his pass offense off the field. In what may go down as one of the Illini's best drives of the season, Juice led them all the way to the Ball State 3 yard line by the time the final horn sounded.

Juice was perhaps at his best on this final drive. Combining his runs with those of Mendenhall and Benn helped, but he also completed important third down passes to keep the drive alive. He passed to Brian Gamble for a big 26 yards over the middle, and he later hit Benn for 15 more yards. By this time, Ball State was too demoralized to stop the clock, and time ran out without them ever getting the ball back.

Illinois outgained Ball State 469 to 337 yards, with 324 of those on the ground. Just as important, they held Nate Davis to 167 passing yards, his first time under 200 in his last eight games. Arrelious Benn led Illini receivers with four grabs for 97 yards. Middle linebacker J. Leman was all over the field for the Illini, being credited with one sack and two tackles for loss among his 11 tackles.

Coach Zook has never treated six wins as an ultimate season goal, so his charges want more. "We have an opportunity to have a special year and win a bunch more games," reminds Zook. With three more games remaining on the regular season schedule, anything is possible. Hopefully, the relief of qualifying for a bowl trip will make it possible for the Illini to relax and play well for the rest of the season.

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