"We did what we needed to do," Coach Ron Zook stated afterwards. "In the beginning, we came out a little flat. But then we kind of played into it, and then it tailed off again at the end, which you can't do."
The emotional expense of the Missouri loss the previous week prevented an inspired effort against the Panthers. Even though the Illini won handily, Zook said his team was not happy in the post game locker room.
"The team came in there and acted like they didn't win. Football games are hard to win. We want to be perfect, and it wasn't perfect. That's probably a good thing. We can't turn the ball over. We have to continue to improve our tackling; it's still not where we want it to be. But we did a lot of good things out there. We played a lot of guys and got a lot of guys experience. It's going pay off down the road."
Juice Williams ran the ball 16 times for 174 yards and two touchdowns. The Panthers played to stop the pass, leaving room for scrambles and option runs. His only negative running the ball came in the third quarter when he ran 22 yards before fumbling at the EIU one yard line.
Overall, the Illini amassed 399 rushing yards. Daniel Dufrene gained 99 yards in 13 carries, freshman Mikel Leshoure added 54 yards in 10 sorties, Troy Pollard returned from a high ankle sprain to score his first collegiate touchdown on a 25 yard run and had 36 total yards, and slot back Arrelious Benn had 5 touches for 48 yards including two tackle-breaking touchdown runs. Zook was pleased with the running backs.
"Daniel was close to 100 yards. I thought Mikel ran extremely well. He practiced well. It was good to see 'Bucket Of Hair' Troy Pollard get a touchdown. The poor guy has had tough times, and I'm so happy for him. He's gonna continue to get better and better. The more guys you've got back there, the better you're gonna be."
Despite his success, Dufrene complimented EIU while agreeing his team was not fired up for the contest.
"We knew they'd be a great team, and we knew they'd come out and give us their best game. Yep, I think we came out a little flat at the beginning because Missouri was such a big game last week."
Playing his first home game in his home town, LeShoure also felt the Illini could have played better.
"We have plenty of work to do. There were times we could have put the game away, but we didn't. We've got to work offensively and defensively to get ready for the teams down the road."
Juice was erratic at times with his passes, but he still finished with 16 completions in 25 attempts for 124 yards and a 16 yard touchdown pass to Chris Duvalt. Unfortunately, he also threw two interceptions, the second a deflection off Duvalt's hands. Arrelious Benn had seven catches for 36 yards, while Duvalt, Michael Hoomanawanui and Fred Sykes each grabbed two balls.
Part of Williams' rushing total came from scrambles, but Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley also wanted to establish the quarterback option because he knows that extra dimension makes his offense extremely difficult to defend.
"I thought we got the run game established with the first unit. We were able to get Juice a few touches, we got Daniel the ball out on the perimeter a couple times, and we were able to finish some drives. We want people to have to defend our quarterback."
Locksley was happy he could get some young guys some valuable experience. But he was disappointed how his group finished the game. And he was expecially concerned about the turnovers.
"We have a lot of things to work on. Number one for us is taking care of the football. With ten turnovers in two weeks, we've got to get that corrected. Against good teams, that will come back to haunt us."
Place kicker Matt Eller was perfect, nailing field goals of 21 and 42 yards in his first action inside Memorial Stadium. The Missouri game helped him overcome his nervousness, and so did his placement holder and long snapper.
Defensively, the Illini played well in the middle quarters. But they gave up a quick touchdown to start the game, and they lost focus again in the fourth quarter. Eastern running back Travorus Bess accumulated 183 yards in 15 carries. He is a talented runner, but there were some big holes for him, and tackling was inconsistent.
Senior defensive tackle Dave Lindquist was succinct describing what the Illini need to do defensively to improve.
"We've got to do a lot better against the run. It's tackling. It's going out there with more emotion and trying to knock somebody's head off. You have a dominant defense by having 11 men trying to do that."
Middle linebacker Brit Miller agreed, although he gave credit to the Panther offense while also praising his own.
"When we needed stops today, the veteran guys on the team got them. We're at the point in the season where this is the best thing that could happen to us. We can't be satisfied with this victory. We knew Eastern Illinois would fight to the end. But the offense did a great job today and put up numbers."
The Illini defense was expected to be one of the top groups in the nation this year, but it hasn't yet lived up to its billing. Besides needing more emotional intensity, it is starting to suffer from a lack of depth at some positions. Defensive tackle Josh Brent didn't dress, and cornerback Miami Thomas went down early with what is likely a season-ending knee injury. Coach Zook says there is still some quality in the defensive secondary.
"Miami's probably gonna be out. We've still got Travon (Bellamy), who played corner two years ago. We worked Dere (Hicks) at safety some, so he's gonna play both positions. We'll get Donsay (Hardeman) back there in a week or so, and we need to get him back at safety.
"We're getting low there, but we've still got guys who can play. Tavon (Wilson) got a lot of reps today. Tavon's gonna be a good player. Like Vontae (Davis), he was the D. C. player of the year last year. He needs playing time and experience."
Miller and Hicks each had big interceptions on the day, and Miller also led the team with 2.5 tackles for loss and 11 total tackles. He was seconded on the tackle chart by linebacker Martez Wilson with nine tackles and one TFL.
As a team, Illinois had four sacks of EIU quarterbacks among 8 TFL. Defensive end Derek Walker had no tackles, but he put constant pressure on Panther quarterback Bodie Reeder, forcing some errant throws including the one picked off by Miller.
"We gave up too many big plays again on defense," Zook summarized. "We've got to get back in the grind, and we're going get that corrected. It's critical, but I know we can fix it."