The Wildcats Declawed By Illini
A bright autumn sun greeted the Illini as 23 seniors celebrated their final appearance before the home crowd. Tired of losing to Northwestern and eager to secure a nine win season, the Illini were fired up. They gave their large senior class what they most desired, a great sendoff.
"They'll remember this the rest of their lives," stated a happy Coach Ron Zook.
Illinois played the game without starters Vontae Davis (concussion), Joe Morgan (sickness) and Russ Weil (strained knee), and Arrelious Benn sat out the second half with a mild injury. But there was no letup in productivity.
Juice Williams and Rashard Mendenhall continued their stellar efforts with big games, but it was the play of receiver Jeff Cumberland that really excited the crowd. The 6'-5", 250 pound Cumberland has great speed and leaping ability, and he finally showed the home folks some of his immense potential. He caught four passes for 131 yards and a touchdown while also running a reverse for 18 more yards.
Juice continues to demonstrate the improvement that was anticipated from the time he first stepped on the field as a raw freshman. With Northwestern keying on Mendenhall early, Williams combined excellent running with timely passing to move the team downfield for two first quarter scores.
Two 11 yard Juice runs and a 19 yard pass to Mendenhall paved the way for Rashard's three yard scamper for the first score. Juice and Rashard runs preceded a 48 yard pass to Cumberland, setting up Juice's 1 yard sneak to make the score 14-0. After an exchange of punts, the Illini began their most impressive drive.
Pinned back on their own three yard line, the Illini marched methodically to paydirt. Juice covered 42 of the 97 yards on running plays. And he mixed in passes to Rahkeem Smith for 8 yards and Michael Hoomanawanui for 20 yards, along with Cumberland's run on an end around and short bursts by Rashard and Benn. Juice scored his second touchdown on a one yard naked reverse. Demonstrating dominant power, Juice chose to run into a potential tackler, knocking him backwards as Juice crossed the goal.
The Wildcats have a potent offense, and they proved it on their next series. They took only six plays to cover 56 yards, the big play being a 32 yard pass from quarterback C. J. Bacher to receiver Eric Peterman. Star running back Tyrell Sutton powered the final yard for the touchdown. The rest of the half saw no scoring, although Juice Williams tossed an interception on a deflection, and Illini linebacker Antonio Steele answered with an interception of his own.
With representatives from the Capital One, Outback, and Champs bowls looking on with pleasure, the Illini came out fast again in the second half. They needed only four plays to cover 67 yards, thanks primarily to Cumberland. After a short Rashard run, Juice was a little short on a pass to a wide open Cumberland over the middle. Jeff stopped in time to haul it in for a 31 yard gain. Then, after a one yard Rashard run, Cumberland again found himself open over the middle. He made a brilliant finger tip grab of a Juice pass and proceeded to power through two tacklers to complete a 42 yard touchdown.
The Illini defense forced a punt without a first down. Pinned back on their own six yard line to begin their next possession, the Illini used 14 plays to put the game out of reach. Juice had three runs and an 8 yard pass to Cumberland, but Rashard was the main playmaker on this drive. He covered 52 of the yards on 9 carries, the last one an 8 yard TD burst to make the score 35-7.
Scrappy Northwestern has come from behind several times this year, so they continued to battle. Bacher led them on a touchdown drive before the end of the third quarter. He also guided the Wildcats to a fourth quarter score after a fumble recovery gave him a short field. The two point conversion completed Northwestern's scoring on the day.
But the Illini dashed their opponent's hopes by using their dominant running game effectively to run time off the clock. While they scored no more touchdowns, they set up senior field goal kicker Jason Reda for two field goals, the second a 50 yarder into a Northwest wind that eliminated Northwestern's last hopes of a late comeback.
The Illini defense asserted itself repeatedly this day. Antonio Steele and Kevin Mitchell had interceptions, with Mitchell being given one return yard for falling forward on his grab. This was the first yard gained returning interceptions in 16 Illini attempts this year. Mitchell admitted afterward he wanted so badly to return the ball that he slipped and fell. Will Davis had a sack on Bacher, and so did the tandem of Mike Ware and Antonio James.
J. Leman was inspired on Senior Day. He and fellow senior Justin Harrison shared tackle honors with ten each. Steele had nine tackles, and freshman cornerback Marcus Thomas continued his fine play by getting in on six tackles subbing for Vontae Davis.
Offensively, Illinois held the ball 17 minutes longer than the Wildcats. They amassed 32 first downs and 541 yards of net total offense. Again, the Illini running game was awesome, garnering 321 yards on the day. Juice gained 136 yards in 23 carries, Rashard had 124 yards in 27 carries, and Arrelious Benn and Brian Gamble had three carries each for 23 and 21 yards respectively. In contrast, Northwestern had only 69 total yards net rushing on the day.
Northwestern outgained Illinois through the air, although that was expected. Bacher completed 29 of 49 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns, with 10 completions going to Springfield native Eric Peterman for 120 yards. But Juice had perhaps his best passing day by completing 15 of 23 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown. He continues to pass for a higher completion percentage as he gains confidence.
The Illini didn't rush into the North end zone seats to celebrate with their fellow students after the win. Instead, they walked slowly and confidently as a team toward their locker room, accepting the adulation of the fans who stayed long afterward to absorb every sight and sound of a memorable day and season. The exit was not preplanned according to senior guard Martin O'Donnell.
"That was just a response of this team. We're used to winning. It's expected now. There was a lot of excitement early in the year because of all the struggles we've had. But I was really proud of that, going inside to celbrate with the team. We like celebrating with the fans, but I thought it was good we just came in."
J Leman lingered awhile after his postgame TV interview at midfield. He is emotional leader of a senior class that has endured much hardship but emerged as big winners. As he walked off the field, he raised his arms in triumph, saying over and over to the fans, "I love you, I love you."
He was speaking for the whole team, and he meant every word.
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