"For whatever reason, we didn't play the way we're capable of playing," a discouraged Ron Zook said afterward. "We told them all week long this team was going to play us with everything they had. They did a great job and are well coached."
As was feared, the big Iowa victory last week took a mental and physical toll on Illinois. Bruised and battered bodies may want to play loose and relaxed, but the memory of previous vicious hits can produce hesitancy. Just like last year when a highly physical Wisconsin game preceded a flat performance at Iowa, last Saturday's violent game with Iowa appeared to have lasting effects.
This was especially true the first half, as the Broncos amassed 17 second quarter points to provide a necessary cushion. The Illini played much better the second half, but they had too large a deficit to make up against a quality opponent. Zook at least found some solace in the second half effort.
"I'm proud of them for one aspect, they came out the second half and played the way we should have played the first half. We played a good second thirty minutes, we didn't play a good first 30 minutes."
Turnovers again played a big part in the game. Both of WMU's second quarter scores followed interceptions of Juice Williams passes. One may have been the receiver's fault, but Juice was inconsistent all day.
Breakdowns in the middle of Illinois' offensive line were uncharacteristic but allowed the Broncos to put constant pressure on Williams. He took far more hits than his battered body needed to absorb.
Western Michigan has a high-powered offense led by quarterback Tim Hiller and receiver Jamarko Simmons. Hiller completed 28 of 40 passes for 301 yards and two touchdowns. Many of his passes were on short routes over the middle on crossing patterns that exploited an Illinois secondary weakness.
Simmons especially was athletic enough to turn short passes into big gains. He ended with 11 receptions for 174 yards, several on great catches befitting one of the nation's best.
Western Michigan's John Potter split the uprights on a 31 yard field goal on their opening drive, and the score remained 3-0 until the Illini grabbed some momentum late in the first quarter. The big play was a 61 sideline bomb to Jeff Cumberland. Jason Ford's second attempt from one yard was good to give the Illini their only lead at 7-3.
The Broncos continued to have easy movement through the air, scoring another field goal before Hiller threw touchdown passes of 10 yards to backup quarterback Robert Arnheim and 15 yards to a diving Simmons. Illinois sputtered and stalled the rest of the half.
Ironically, the Broncos won the game despite losing four of their top offensive threats. Tight end Brandon Ledbetter and receiver Schneider Julien both suffered first half injuries. Running back Brandon West went down late in the game. And second leading receiver Juan Nunez didn't play due to a concussion suffered last week.
With the receivers out and Illinois more fired up, WMU could manage only 3 second half points. Unfortunately, that one field goal followed immediately Matt Eller's 20 yard field goal to bring the Illini within 10 points. And it was set up by a kickoff team breakdown as WMU almost broke free for a score. Kicker Derek Dimke provided a touchdown saving tackle, but the play gave the Broncos good enough field position to move into field goal range.
Illinois did come back with a 60 yard drive. Arrelious Benn caught an 8 yarder on fourth down to keep the drive alive, and Cumberland caught two balls to travel the last 15 yards to paydirt, making the score 23-17.
WMU had one more good drive in the second half, but Brit Miller stripped the ball from Arnheim and Sam Carson recovered. Illinois could not sustain a drive of its own and punted into the end zone. A 24 yard completion to Simmons gave the Broncos good field position, and their subsequent punt was downed on the Illinois one yard line with two minutes left in the game.
Juice hit Eddie McGee for 14 big yards, and Juice scrambled for 13 more to get the Illini out of the hole. Williams then hit a streaking A. J. Jenkins for a 54 yard reception to give them a chance at the WMU 18 yard line.
But as has happened too frequently this season, the offense failed in the red zone. Juice missed four straight passes while under a heavy rush. The game ended with Hiller taking a knee to the delight of his fans.
Juice ended with 20 completions in 45 attempts for one touchdown and the two interceptions. Illinois outgained Western Michigan 443 to 365 despite having possession of the ball 6 minutes less than the Broncos. Juice also gained 68 yards rushing, and Daniel Dufrene added 36. But the running game was inconsistent.
Arrelious Benn had another good receiving day with 111 yards on 7 receptions. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui saw the ball come his more this day, catching 4 for 45 yards. Cumberland added 76 yards on three catches.
Defensively, Miller was a force again for the Illini. He ended with 17 tackles including two tackles for loss and a caused fumble. Travon Bellamy added 8 tackles. Vontae Davis and Will Davis each had six tackles, with one of Will's being a sack shared with Dave Lindquist. However, the Illini could not apply as much pressure to Hiller as WMU did to Juice.
If the Illini are to go bowling this year, they will likely have to beat both Ohio State at home next week and always dangerous Northwestern in Evanston. After losing a third game they expected to win, their backs are firmly against the wall. Zook summed it up this way.
"We're gonna find out what kind of football team we really are and what we're made of. These next 14 days we're gonna find out what kind of people we have, what kind of team this is."