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Illini corral the Broncos

Illinois beats Western Michigan 24-7

By Jeff Mayfield

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[September 04, 2012]  CHAMPAIGN-URBANA -- The University of Illinois Fighting Illinois football squad won their season opener at home 24-7 over the visiting Broncos of Western Michigan University. If you read a lot of accounts of the game, many writers will surely report that the Illinois defense was just as stingy as they were last year. I will get to the defense in just a moment.

I do want to give the offense some props because regardless of what you read, the quick scoring strike by the offense after WMU had deferred the opening coin toss allowed the defense a cushion that they seldom get to work with. Illinois scored so quick -- how 'bout the fourth play from scrimmage -- on a nifty 64-yard home run from quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse to veteran receiver Ryan Lankford. So, before I even sat down with my popcorn and sweet tea, it was already 7-0 Illinois! I could get used to this. In fact, if the Illini want to start every game this way, that would be fine with me.

The Illini struck again at the 5:51 mark as new kicker Nick Immekus floated a 43-yard field goal through the uprights, and I for one am really glad he got some work.

The kicking team, and all special teams, for that matter, will play a huge role in how successful this edition of the Illini will be this season. Illinois will have a small margin to depend on, and they will have to stay healthy on top of that.

Illinois capped the first-half scoring with a nifty decision. They lined up in a multi-receiver set, but the play came in late and there was some confusion at the line of scrimmage. First-year head coach Tim Beckman saw what was happening, ran down the sideline and signaled for a timeout. They came back with a variation of the play, and Scheelhaase ran it in instead. I love it when a plan comes together!

So, the teams headed to the locker room with the Illini enjoying a 17-0 lead. Yes, they missed some opportunities in the first half. But since it seems like they struggle against teams like WMU -- remember last year the Illini were fortunate to escape with a 3-point win -- this seemed like a huge lead.

Unfortunately, the momentum and flow would change greatly in the second half. Illinois marched down the field again, but somehow one of Scheelhaase's passes that was headed for a touchdown ended up in the hands of WMU's Donald Celiscar. A tip of the LDN cap to Celiscar because we still don't know how he came away with that football.

Anyway, the Broncos avoided getting shut out for three full quarters when star QB Alex Carder hit Jaime Wilson with an 8-yard TD pass with 32 seconds left in the third stanza, and with the extra point WMU was suddenly within 17-7.

While all this was going on, Scheelhaase, unbeknownst to many fans, was being treated on the sidelines for some type of an ankle injury. In the press box they told us it was all precautionary and that Nathan would probably return, but I told Greg, "Look at him; he can hardly walk. He's not coming back into this ballgame." Oh, how I wish I would've been wrong.

But I wasn't. In came backup QB Reilley O'Toole, and even though we were really concerned about Scheelhaase, we were anxious to see what O'Toole could do. The long and short of it is ... well, it looks like he may need a little more work. We both commented that we knew that Scheelhaase is a good fit for this offense, but neither one of us realized how much our entire offense and our personnel are predicated on Nathan being on the field. Miles Osei came in for a while and looked maybe marginally better, but in our view they both need to get more reps so they can get up to speed in a hurry.

Again, injuries and the overall health of this ballclub will be crucial to this team's run for a bowl berth. The schedule is kind IF they can improve each and every week.

Since the Illinois backup QBs could not move the Illini down the field, in all reality the game was hanging in the balance. Alex Carder runs the spread or the run-and-shoot -- whatever they call their offense -- about as well as any offense in the country. And they were moving down the field again.

Greg had gone down onto the field by this point in the proceedings, so I went down to check on Payne and his buddy, Dylan Maris, who lives in Atlanta and is a student at Olympia. I told the boys that I was really worried because I thought it was just a matter of time before the Broncos bucked and bronced their way into the end zone, which would've made the score 17-14 with a world of time still on the clock.

Fortunately for me and the 43,441 paying customers (I think the weather may have scared off thousands of people, but the weather held for a great day of football), the Illini defense decided not to rest on last year's laurels. When I least expected it, Illinois' Ashante Williams jumped a route, picked off a Carter pass and raced 60 yards by taking it to the house and giving the Illini some breathing room at 24-7. As fate would have it, that turned out to be the final score.

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What we liked

  • We liked the way the offense came out and put points on the board early. We liked the way Illinois foiled WMU's coin-toss decision to defer to start the game.

  • We loved the way the defense had a decent push and rush, deep coverage, coverage underneath, AND coverage in the passing lanes. They will need all that and more next week in Tempe, Ariz.!

  • We liked the fact that the Illini defense held WMU to minus 6 yards rushing -- that is not a typo!

  • We loved the emphasis on solid tackling technique, gang-tackling and the overall good pursuit to the ball.

  • We loved winning the turnover battle.

  • We loved the improvement on special teams and hope to see lots more of that.

  • We loved Jon Davis running as an H-back. He averaged only 9 yards per carry -- do you think that will work? Props to the offensive line for the gaping holes they created. This team will need a bruising feature back to go with Illini scatbacks like Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson.

  • We liked the way new coach Tim Beckman used the clock and just his general clock management and game management throughout -- a nice effort for the first time out and causes us to want to see more.

  • We liked the way Beckman used the knowledge he gained playing WMU from his days in the MAC to develop such a great game plan. We had struggled against the Broncos before. I think Beckman has lost only once against them.

What we didn't like

  • While we like to see the ball in Ryan Lankford's hands as much as possible, we didn't care for the end-around play we ran with him. Not just because it lost so many yards -- there is a time to run that play and a time not to, and that was not the time.

  • We didn't like the fact that Illinois had some empty trips, including that interception in the end zone. When the Illini play stronger teams, stuff like that just can't happen.

  • We didn't like that Illinois didn't feature more vertical passing. While they may not have wanted to show Arizona State much of that -- or any future opponents for that matter -- I just like to score as many TDs as we can every single game ... every single week. I realize I grew up on AFL football ... so, sue me.

That's not very much not to like. We're really hoping that Beckman and this year's Illini get off to a great start and move toward a third straight bowl season. But it is just way too early to decipher how good this Illini team can be. We'll take this opening day win and hope for the best Saturday in the desert. I'd like to go to 'Zona for the contest, but I get to go to a family wedding instead -- so the Illini will be on their own for this one!

Have a great week, everybody!


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