Illinois Not A Good Homecoming Date Anymore

The Fighting Illini football team punched its ticket to a quality bowl game Saturday night by spoiling Minnesota's Homecoming 44-17. The stars again were Rashard Mendenhall and Juice Williams, but the Illini received valuable contributions from a wide variety of players as they played perhaps their best game of the season.

Coach Ron Zook was understandably pleased with the effort.

"I told the players in the locker room how proud I am of them. A lot of them probably don't even realize what we have accomplished. They went out there and did everything we asked them to do."

Mendenhall continues to break records in this memorable year. His two touchdowns broke the single season touchdown record of 15 set by Howard Griffith. And he tied Jim Grabowski and J. C. Caroline by rushing for over 100 yards for the sixth time in one season. His 201 yards put him within easy reach of the single season rushing record held by Antoineo Harris with two regular season games to play.

But perhaps the most important new element in the Illini offense on this night was the poise and leadership of Juice Williams. Standing tall and confident in the pocket, he had his best passing day of the season with 14 completions in 21 attempts for 207 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. When you combine that with his 133 rushing yards and one additional touchdown, Williams personally accounted for 340 yards of total offense.

When Williams is able to balance run with pass, the Illini offense takes on an entirely new aura and must now be a threat to any defense in the country. Offensive Coordinator called a masterful game as well and had to enjoy showing off more of what the Illini offense is capable of doing. Hopefully, Juice can maintain his new confidence level with future opponents.

Jeff Cumberland also had by far his best day as an Illini, catching four passes for 53 yards and one touchdown while running a reverse for 25 more yards. Illini fans have been waiting impatiently for the large and fast Cumberland to show off his massive potential. He did so tonight at Minnesota's expense.

"We're going to move him around a little bit," said Zook, referring to Cumberland. "We want to get him in a situation where we can get the ball in his hands. He had a nice game."

Illinois dominated from the start. Cornerback Vontae Davis intercepted Gophers' quarterback Adam Weber's first pass of the game at the Illinois 44 yard line. Six plays later, Juice took advantage of play action to hit Jacob Willis on a 47 yard post pattern to open the scoring.

After the Illinois defensive front put a stop to Minnesota's next drive, it took 12 plays for the Illini to score again. This drive featured Cumberland, his 25 yard run on a reverse moved the chains, and his 22 yard touchdown reception finished it off. Minnesota was down 14-0 before they knew what hit them.

After a Gopher field goal gave them new hope, the Illini doused the flames by scoring again in only two plays. A Juice run of 9 yards preceded a brilliant tackle-breaking 64 yard run by Rashard to make the score 21-3. To Minnesota's credit, they did try to make a game of it. Weber's pass to tall Ernie Wheelwright narrowed the score to 21-10.

Again, Illinois pounded the Gopher defense into submission. Juice led his offense on a nine play drive to paydirt. Utilizing passes to seldom-used reserves DaJuan Warren and Marquis Wilkins, Juice mixed accurate passing with runs by Rashard, Daniel Dufrene and himself to move quickly downfield. Juice's 8 yard scamper made the score 28-10. Late in the half, Jason Reda hit field goals of 47 and 37 yards to push the halftime score to 34-10. The rest of the game was mere formality.

Illinois had 429 of their 655 total yards of offense in the first half. And their defense forced Minnesota into a one-dimensional passing attack by limiting their running game to 22 yards by halftime. Dave Lindquist was outstanding for the Illini, and he had plenty of help from Derek Walker, Doug Pilcher, Will Davis, Jerry Brown, Antonio James, Brit Miller, J. Leman and others.

The Illini relied almost entirely on running the ball the second half to run out the clock and keep from embarrassing former Illini Tim Brewster and his young team. Jason Reda did hit his third field goal on the night, the 51 yarder being his second best kick of his career. With no wind in the Metrodome, Reda's kick appeared to have traveled 10 yards farther than needed.

Rashard scampered for his second touchdown of the night with a 33 yarder in the fourth quarter to end the Illini scoring onslaught and give him the season TD record. But despite his excitement over his personal and team success, perhaps Rashard's happiest moments came late in the game as older brother Walter Mendenhall received his first extended opportunity to run the ball this season. Walter didn't disappoint, blasting for 30 and 19 yard gains on his way to a 57 yard rushing night.

Minnesota's Weber scrambled out of the pocket for a 29 yard touchdown against Illini reserves, but it was too little too late. Minnesota will eventually be good again, but this year they are demoralized. Remembering the 45-0 pasting the Gophers gave Illinois three years ago, Illini upperclassmen probably didn't mind seeing the shoe on the other foot.

Illinois is looking forward to a post-season bowl appearance for the first time since 2001. But there are still two important games left in the regular season. Next up is the mighty Ohio State Buckeyes, the number one team in the country. Illinois will not be favored, but if they play the way they did tonight in Minnesota, they are as well prepared for a glorious effort as they possibly can be.

"Our program still has a long way to go, but we took another step," summarizes Zook. "They're getting to where they're enjoying this. They're loving to play. We have two regular season games left, and we have to continue to improve."

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