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
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
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.
[to top of second column]
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
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!
[By JEFF MAYFIELD]
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