The Illini bolted out to a 24-0 halftime lead before losing focus the second half. But after the tough loss to Missouri last week, Illinois coach Ron Zook wasn't complaining.
"A win is a win. Obviously, there are some things we've got to correct, and there are some things we did get corrected. There were also a lot of things I liked. I do think there is a lot more positive to build on than negative."
He liked the quick start and the way the Illini offense ran the ball to the tune of 384 yards. And he was pleased with the way backup quarterback Eddie McGee performed. Starting quarterback Juice Williams ran untouched on an option on his first offensive play and was nearing the goal line when he lost his balance after straining a muscle in his upper leg.
Zook said the injury isn't serious, but he didn't want to risk further damage to his leg by playing him further.
"Juice strained his quad. He could have played. I asked Dr. Kyrouac a couple different times, is he at more risk? And he said he was at risk to further injury. Juice wanted to go. In fact, he fought me a little at halftime. But I felt it was more important that he's healthy and we get him ready."
Fortunately, McGee is in his third year backing up Williams and was well prepared.
"I think Eddie McGee is a good quarterback as well," Zook reminded. "We're very fortunate to have two quarterbacks who can win for us. I thought he did well. He threw a couple bad balls, and a couple times he ran the ball when he should have handed off. But that's the most he's played since he's been here. He'll get better. This will help him down the road."
McGee finished 13 of 17 passing with one touchdown, a 27 yarder to Chris Duvalt. And he ran for 55 net yards in 18 carries. He scored touchdowns on runs of 1 and 11 yards. He did throw one interception and lost one fumble but operated the Illini attack efficiently.
Seven Illini caught McGee passes. Jarred Fayson led the way with four receptions for 39 yards. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who's father played at ISU, caught three balls for 51 big yards. And running back Jason Ford grabbed two aerials for 26 yards.
But the passing attack took a back seat to a prolific running game. Jason Ford and Daniel Dufrene both sat out the Missouri game with ankle sprained ankles but made up for it against the Redbirds. Ford powered for 139 yards in ten carries, including a brilliant 68 yard run. He scored one touchdown. Dufrene added 62 yards in five carries including a 24 yard touchdown scamper.
Louisville freshman Justin Green showed the fans his great speed and cutting ability. He picked up an impressive 56 yards in seven carries and scored on a 22 yard sortie. Williams gained 49 yards in his one attempt. And Troy Pollard started and added 26 yards in 5 carries.
Defensively, safety Garrett Edwards and WILL linebacker Russell Ellington both had 8 tackles to lead the way. Ellington, who did not play last week due to a one game suspension, added an interception late in the game and returned it 78 yards. He also broke up two passes.
Cornerback Tavon Wilson garnered 6 tackles, corner Travon Bellamy and safety Donsay Hardeman added 5 apiece, and linebacker Ian Thomas, safety Supo Sanni, and defensive end Clay Nurse each totaled four. Defensive tackle Josh Brent had only three tackles, but two of them produced losses. Defensive tackle Corey Liuget, Thomas and defensive end Doug Pilcher also had tackles for loss.
Liuget and Pilcher combined on a lineman's dream. Liuget tipped a pass from ISU quarterback Matt Brown, and the ball fell into Pilcher's arms. The redshirt senior rumbled 41 yards toward paydirt only to run out of gas before the end zone.
Zook stressed at halftime the importance of maintaining their intensity the second half, and the Illini took the kickoff and marched 69 yards to make the score 31-0. However, Illini focus waned considerably afterward. Penalties and missed assignments multiplied, and the Redbirds took advantage.
Using a wide open spread offense, ISU passed a total of 52 times, completing 31 between two quarterbacks totaling 354 yards. Zook was not surprised they made a game of it.
"They did a great job. They came back. I said before they were gonna do everything they could do to throw caution to the wind, and they did and did a nice job."
After two games, Zook is still looking for his charges to play a complete game.
"I would have though we were a lot more ready to play last week than we did, and I really would have liked to play 60 minutes today. We didn't play 60 minutes. But we did the things we had to do."
The Illini now have two weeks to prepare for a rugged Big 10 schedule. They travel to powerhouse Ohio State, who lost a heartbreaker to USC tonight, before returning home for games with dangerous Penn State and Michigan State teams. Zook knows what lies ahead.
"Batten down the hatches. We all know we're getting ready to go into a meatgrinder. We've got a lot of work to do, and we've got to get better."