Defense Dominant in Illini Scrimmage

The Fighting Illini football team held a closed scrimmage inside Memorial Stadium Saturday. The players and coaches all loved the look of the nearly completed construction, and they enjoyed playing on the new field. The scrimmage served as a dress rehearsal for the first home game of 2008.

The big story of the scrimmage was the play of the defense. Will Davis and others fired up the defenders before play began, and they took that emotion into the battle.

Playing first team defense against second team offense, the offense struggled to gain yardage. The number of sacks, quarterback hurries, tackles for loss and passes broken up for the entire defense filled the stat sheets. Overall, there were 26 tackles for loss including 13 sacks for 92 yards in losses.

Jerry Brown had three tackles for loss including one sack, Josh Brent had 2.5 TFL including 2 sacks, and Clay Nurse and Derek Walker were credited with two sacks each. Others with sacks included Antonio James, Ugo Uzodinma, Corey Liuget, Daryle Ballew, Glenn Foster, and Whitney Mercilus. Wilson and Brent led all tacklers with six each.

The first team defense found the second offensive line porous, but part of that was the fact that three freshmen were playing there. With Xavier Fulton held out as an injury precaution and Craig Wilson and Marc Jackson relegated to the third team, the second team line often included rookies Corey Lewis, Graham Pocic, and Jeff Allen. With all the stunts and blitzes of Illinois' athletic defenders, the freshmen were overwhelmed.

Safety Nate Bussey returned an errant Eddie McGee pass 30 yards for a touchdown, the only interception on the day. Ashante Williams, Dere Hicks, Bo Flowers, Vontae Davis and Bussey all broke up pass attempts.

Middle linebacker Brit Miller was excited about the defense afterward, but he also had praise for the offense.

"The defense dominated today, and we loved it. We always have fun on defense, and that's the way to play ball. Our coaches always harp on the fact the best defenses they've seen play with emotion.

"The offense looked good. The ones did a great job against the twos, and that's the kind of stuff we're looking for. Both of the one teams dominated, and that's where we need to be right now."

Juice Williams led his offense efficiently after the first possession. He completed 16 of 25 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns. He also had a couple of good runs and ended with positive yardage despite 2 sacks. But with a red shirt on, his running yardage was stopped with just a touch by a defender. As has been true all fall, Juice has made a major improvement in his confidence and passing accuracy.

"It was ok," evaluated Juice afterwards. "Me being in the third year, I want to be perfect. There's some things we can work on. As long as we continue to get better, we should be fine. The new field is nice and soft, it looks good, and I just want to come out and play good on it."

Juice also provided leadership late in the contest. In red zone action against the first team defense, Williams fired a pass through the arms of a defender that landed in Will Judson's hands in the back of the end zone. Juice encouraged all offensive players to rush the field to celebrate, perhaps to counter defensive emotion.

"At one point, it just felt like we were dead on offense, so I did that to build up their spirits," said the emerging leader.

Eddie McGee was on the run all day long and had little or no time to find open receivers. He ended with 7 completions in19 attempts with one interception and no touchdowns. He also suffered 51 yards in losses attempting to pass.

Freshman Jacob Charest aquitted himself well despite also being sacked several times. He showed accuracy with 10 for 18 passing for 120 yards, including a super throw caught by a leaping A. J. Jenkins over the outstretched arms of a defender and a lovely slant pattern to Cordale Scott for a 15 yard touchdown. Charest, Jenkins and Scott will be playing together for four years. Charest also showed speed on a couple running plays.

With running back Daniel Dufrene tweaking an ankle early, freshman Mikel LeShoure showed power and some speed with 98 yards rushing in 14 carries. This included a 36 yard scamper where he sped past the line of scrimmage and then bulled through a double team downfield to reach the end zone. Fellow freshman Jason Ford gained 35 yards working with the second team offense.

Seventeen players had receptions on the day. Perhaps the biggest news was the play of the tight ends. Michael Hoomanawanui and London Davis had two catches each, and both Hubie Graham and Tom Sullivan caught a ball. Illini fans will be happy to see the Illini offense involving the tight ends.

Marquis Wilkins led the way with four catches. Arrelious Benn, Chris James, Chris Duvalt, Greg McClendon, and Will Judson each collected three, with Benn gaining 58 yards including a 45 yard touchdown catch and run.

Matt Brandabur and Derek Dimke each kicked two field goals during the scrimmage, and they each collected three in work prior to the scrimmage. Matt Eller also kicked a couple through the uprights. One of Dimke's kicks was blocked, although Coach Zook felt that was a mistake with the protection. Illini coaches are not yet prepared to name a starting placekicker.

Despite the dominance of the defense, Coach Zook found reason to be pleased with the offense as well.

"Juice continues to show he knows where to go with the football. Mikel had a nice day. Daniel kind of tweaked an ankle a little bit. He's gonna be fine. And Jason Ford had a nice day as well as Mikel. And we don't even have Troy (Pollard) out there right now."

Overall, Zook was pleased with his team's progress and believes another week at Camp Rantoul will help iron out the wrinkles.

"I think we showed a little enthusiasm down in the red zone, which I wanted to see. We weren't very good on offense the first series, but then we got going. I thought both the first offense and first defense played extremely well. I think we've shown we have a pretty good defensive front."

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