"Overall, I think it was a very productive spring," said satisfied head coach Ron Zook afterwards. "We put a lot of football in there, put a lot of pressure and demanded a lot from them. They responded, and I think it's going to pay off for us in the fall."
Illini fans gave an enthusiast, lengthy, and well-deserved round of applause for the team as it entered the field, and there was much to cheer about from then on. The offense competed against the defense, with a point system rewarding outstanding effort on both sides of the ball. Officially, the offense defeated the defense 38-31.
However, the defense was not permitted to use all its arsenal of tricks and formations, probably to make the game more competitive. The offense earned points for first downs and plays covering more than 30 yards, allowing them to "win" despite scoring only one official touchdown plus one kickoff return touchdown.
The offensive player who most captured the fancy of the fans was receiver Chris Duvalt. He was one of four players who caught four passes, for 52 yards. But most of his catches were of the circus variety, which seemed appropriate since the Ringling Brothers & Barnam and Bailey Circus is performing at the Assembly Hall this weekend. Chris, moved to offense just this spring, also impressed on punt and kickoff returns, gaining 39 big yards on one kickoff.
Chris James, Florida transfer Jarred Fayson, and Alex Reavy also caught four passes each. Brian Gamble, who missed half the spring while serving time in Coach Zook's doghouse, flashed his outstanding potential by making three grabs for 71 yards, including a 54 yard post pattern for a touchdown on a pass from Eddie McGee.
Fayson showed why he is worth waiting for as he returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown. Ineligible in 2008 under transfer rules, Fayson sped through a hole, broke a couple tackles, and veered to the East sideline where he broke through Marcus Thomas's grasp on his way to the endzone. His size, strength and athleticism will be big additions in 2009.
Juice Williams and McGee both completed more than half their passes, although they will freely admit they missed some open receivers. And 4-5 balls were dropped, although most were closely guarded. Neither quarterback threw an interception, which was also good news. Williams ended 17 of 31 for 210 yards, while McGee completed 8 of 14 for 127 yards.
Juice and Eddie were hurt by the fact they could not be tackled. Both are excellent runners who rarely fall on the first hit, so quick whistles to prevent injury prevented them from gaining good yardage on the ground. And some of the 9 sacks they shared would not have been such had they been allowed to break tackles.
An option attack is of minimal value with quick whistles. Add in the fact staunch run blockers Michael Hoomanawanui at tight end and fullback Rahkeem Smith were both sidelined with injuries, and it is not surprising the Illini running game suffered.
Starting running back Daniel Dufrene managed only 18 yards in 10 carries while rookie backup Mikel LeShoure gained 22 yards in 8 carries. Redshirt freshman Darius Purcell fought hard for his 14 yards, but it took him six carries to do it.
Obviously, a major reason for the running woes was the staunch defense. Illinois has the makings of an outstanding defense, and the offense must wrestle with them every day in practice. In the long run, the experience will benefit them. But right now, the defense wins most of the battles at the line of scrimmage.
Defensive end Jerry Brown, recently returned to action after spending the first three weeks of spring catching up on his academics, led the way with three sacks and five total tackles for 33 yards in losses. He also forced a fumble. End Will Davis was right behind Brown, credited with 3 tackles for 21 yards in losses.
End Antonio James produced the most exciting defensive play of the day, scooping up a LeShoure fumble caused by Clay Nurse and rambling 44 yards untouched into the end zone. Antonio also contributed a sack for a 15 yard loss.
Defensive ends filled the stat sheet. Besides Brown, Davis and James, Derek Walker had 2.5 tackles behind the line for 16 yards in losses. Nurse enjoyed one sack for 12 yards, and rookie Whitney Mercilus had two tackles for loss for 7 yards. Safety Bo Flowers, playing with the second unit, led all tacklers with 7.
Captains won't be determined until fall. But it was interesting to see offensive tackle Xavier Fulton and linebacker Rodney Pittman represent their units, joining former Illini greats and honorary coaches Tony Pashos and Fred Wakefield for the opening coin toss. Obviously, they are among the upperclassmen leaders who have emerged this spring.
Several Illini were honored at halftime. Hoomanawanui, withheld from this game due to a hamstring injury, was named the Most Improved Offensive Player of the spring. Pittman and Nurse shared the award for Most Improved Defensive Player.
The Best Effort on Offense award went to offensive guard Randall Hunt. David Lindquist walked away with the Best Effort on Defense award. The Faculty Award, for leadership on and off the field, went to linebacker Brit Miller. Tight end Tom Sullivan and linebacker Conor Gillen were the most improved walkons. And Ryan McDonald won the Chancellor's Award for the team's highest grade point average.
Coach Zook admits there are some drawbacks to running offense against defense rather than playing a regular game. But he believes the growth this spring will be a positive springboard to a productive summer.
"When you play a game, it's a game. But it's a lot tougher when it's just offense against defense. So maybe we didn't have quite the emotion I would like to have seen.
"But for the most part, we got a lot of things accomplished. It was a good spring for us. As a staff, offense and defense, we know what we can do, and we know the things we've got to work on."