After five long seasons on the outside looking in at college football's postseason party, Illinois didn't exactly tiptoe into its first bowl berth since 2001. Rather, the Illini all but kicked in the door and announced its presence at the bowl bash.
Scoring on seven of their first eight possessions, the Illini bludgeoned their way to 34 points and 429 total yards in the first half en route to a 44-17 thrashing of last-place Minnesota at the Metrodome.
Though Illinois didn't keep up its scoring pace in the second half, it finished with 655 total yards for the school's fourth-best showing in its 100-plus years and the best since 1983.
With junior running back Rashard Mendenhall delivering his second 200-yard game of the season and sophomore quarterback Juice Williams amassing a personal-best 340 total yards, Illinois clinched a bowl berth in impressive style.
Williams, again given the opportunity to play until the game was decided instead of sharing time with Eddie McGee, fired touchdown passes on Illinois' first two possessions to stake his team to a 14-0 lead. He ended up completing 14 of 21 passes for 207 yards, two scores and one interception.
"It feels even better that the passing game is starting to click now," Williams said in the Daily Herald. "It lets us have the capability to throw the ball when teams try to load up the box on us to try to stop the option."
Teams load up because of Mendenhall, who didn't seem to care against Minnesota. With two long runs for scores, he set the school record for single-season touchdowns with 16. He also needs just 17 yards more to set the school's single-season rushing mark.
Illinois goes into this week's matchup at top-ranked Ohio State at full speed.
GAME BALL GOES TO: QB Juice Williams — The true sophomore has thrown his share of errant passes during his 19 career starts, but he delivered two of the sweetest throws of his life to kick-start Illinois' 44-17 win at Minnesota. Williams airmailed a perfect bomb to Jacob Willis for a 47-yarder to open the scoring, then rifled a pass over the middle to Jeff Cumberland for a 22-yard TD strike. Williams accounted for a career-high 340 total yards and three scores.
KEEP AN EYE ON: WR Jeff Cumberland — Illinois played him at tight end his first year-and-a-half because of his rare size (6-5, 244) and speed (4.5). But the blocking didn't work out and he moved to receiver last month. Cumberland made his first start at receiver against Minnesota and caught four passes for 53 yards and a score. He also took a reverse for 24 yards.
LOOKING GOOD: With his 201 rushing yards and two scores in a 44-17 win at Minnesota, RB Rashard Mendenhall set Illinois' single-season record for touchdowns (16) and came within 17 yards of the school's single-season record for yards. Mendenhall owns 1,314 to pull within a few strides of Antoineo Harris (1,330 yards in 2002). He jumped into eighth place on the Football Bowl Subdivision rushing leaders list with 131.4 yards per game.
QB Juice Williams — He seems to gain confidence with every snap. He clicked on 14 of 21 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns, but also ran the Illini's option attack almost to perfection with 133 yards and one touchdown in 18 attempts.
DT David Lindquist led all Illini defenders with a career-high three stops. That included his third sack of the year. As a unit, Illinois piled up four sacks to move to 33 for the year. That's good for 10th in the country.
STILL NEEDS WORK: For seemingly the umpteenth week in a row, an opposing quarterback and receiver found a gaping hole in the pass coverage over the middle by Illinois' safeties and took advantage for the touchdown. This time, Kevin Mitchell and Justin Sanders looked like the culprits when Adam Weber hit Ernie Wheelwright for a 15-yard score.
P Anthony Santella certainly needs work. His only punt in the Minnesota game came 3:11 left in the third quarter.
Backup QB Eddie McGee played Illinois' final true series, but a familiar bugaboo stopped a good drive. McGee couldn't hang on to the ball while handing off (or faking a handoff) to Daniel Dufrene and lost a fumble. That's his fourth lost fumble this year in limited time.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We all just want to be somewhere warm." — Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall, simplifying his postseason desires in the Daily Herald.
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