Honorary coaches Carey Davis and Nathan Hodel, opponents in the last Super Bowl, plus former Illinois head coach Mike White and a large contingent of former Illini took in the game, which concluded spring practice. With a constant wind near 30 mph limiting the passing and punting, it was not an artistic success. But there were a number of positive developments.
"I'm pleased and proud the way they played," Illinois coach Ron Zook said afterward. "When you split a team, it's hard to do. We had them fairly even. We didn't do some things offensively and defensively we've been doing all spring, so there was a little bit of a difference there. But I thought for the most part they played hard and played pretty well."
Zook and his staff took out a major portion of the offense prior to the game. For instance, the option was not existent. Quarterback Juice Williams was definitely handicapped without it.
"The option is 60% of the offense," Juice explained. "The zone read is something we try to hang our hat on. The speed option helps us out as well. So when you take those things out, it's a little difficult at times. The defensive line knows I'm not gonna carry the ball, so they can attack the running back."
Zook had good reasons for the limitations.
"We did limit the offense. When you take the option away, it makes a big, big difference. It's one of the things Juice does extremely well, and it puts an unbelieveable amount of pressure on the defense. First of all, it is hard for the officials to know if he's down or not down. And the coaches argue over whether he's down. So we didn't have to worry about that.
"And you don't want to get the quarterbacks hurt. The option is a large part of our offense. You take that away, it makes a difference."
The strong wind played havoc with the passing game, further limiting the offense. Even the strong-armed Juice admitted as much.
"Going into the wind was very hard. It was pretty tough throwing the long ball. You've got to be careful and keep everything on a rope."
Williams was still the offensive star of the final scrimmage. He completed 13 of 26 passes for 150 yards and one touchdown. He also threw an interception when middle linebacker Evan Frierson tipped and then caught an errant throw. It was a workmanlike if not inspired performance, and Juice realizes he must continue to improve.
"I've got to be more efficient. As a quarterback, I've got to take charge of a lot of positions, try to make the plays work every down. We've got a bunch of young guys out there. Sometimes they run a route wrong, sometimes a young offensive tackle might get beat. But that's why we're here, to come out and try to get better."
Chris Duvalt was Juice's favorite target on the day. Chris grabbed 5 balls for 49 yards and scored a touchdown. Freshman Jack Ramsey was also popular, gathering in 4 passes for 29 yards. A.J. Jenkins had the longest pass reception of 23 yards.
Mikel Leshoure led the Blue running attack by gaining 51 yards on ten carries, scoring one touchdown. Daniel Dufrene supported Leshoure with 27 yards in 9 carries. His best run was with time running out at the end of the game. He swept right and forced his way through three waves of tacklers to make it into the end zone from 7 yards out.
Eddie McGee and Jacob Charest split time quarterbacking the Orange unit. McGee was only 3 for 8 passing. However, he also played receiver and caught three passes for 23 yards. Splitting time at receiver the last week interfered with his quarterbacking, as did a lineman who struggled with pass protection. Working with both sides, Charest completed 8 of 16 passes for 53 yards.
Jason Ford picked up 42 yards in 7 carries for the Orange team. His longest was a beautiful 21 yarder on the first play of the second half. Troy Pollard appeared close to 100% recovered from an early spring injury and added 19 yards in 7 carries.
Defensively, end Jerry Brown impressed everyone with his tenacious play. He had 8 tackles to lead all defenders, including two sacks and 6 tackles for loss. However, Coach Zook added a note of caution for those hoping Brown will become the next defensive star.
"When Jerry is not in the academic study hall, he's had a good spring. It's probably a little premature to get too high on Jerry right now because he's got some academic issues he's got to get cleaned up."
Martez Wilson had 6 tackles and continued to play well at the important middle linebacker spot. He also broke up a pass. Tavon Wilson had five tackles and Supo Sanni four. Nate Bussey and Clay Nurse each had two tackles for loss. Antonio Gully, Rahkeem Smith, Doug Pilcher, Nattiel Perkins, Glenn Foster, Dustin Jefferson, and Corey Liuget also had TFL.
At halftime, several spring awards were handed out. The Bresee Award for most improved offensive player was shared between center Eric Block and wide receiver Cordale Scott. The Bresee Award for most improved defender went to linebacker Ian Thomas. Tight end Zach Becker and defensive back Nattiel Perkins shared the Bresee most improved walkon award.
The Best Effort Award for offense went to guard Jon Asamoah. The defensive award for Best Effort went to cornerback Tavon Wilson. The Faculty Award, based on leadership, community and classroom went to defensive tackle Sirod Williams. And the Chancellor's Award for highest grade point average went to Asamoah.
The Illini now must complete semester exams and work out on their own or with the Strength and Conditioning staff until fall workouts begin at Camp Rantoul in August. Summarizing the spring, Zook was cautiously optimistic, especially with the enthusiasm and intensity. It was a big improvement over last year.
"Overall, I'm very pleased with the last two weeks in particular, that we've continued to improve. Obviously, we're not there yet, we still have a ways to go. But I like the attitude of this team. They've done everything we've asked them to do. It's a different attitude, and they're excited about it."