Sandwiched in between last weekend’s emotional prime time upset of nationally ranked Arizona State and next week’s Big Ten opener versus hated in-state rival Northwestern, today’s contest against MAC opponent Western Michigan certainly had a “trap game” feel.
And given the Illini performance in the first half, it certainly looked that way for awhile (think Minnesota game last season and again in ’08). But Illinois held on to beat the Broncos 23-20, despite finding themselves both trailing at halftime, and with a genuine opportunity to lose on the final defensive possession of the game.
It’s certainly a sign of progress for the program that the team locker room was a depressed atmosphere in spite of a win.
“I think that’s one of the greatest things that could have happened,” Illini Coach Ron Zook told the media postgame.
“If you asked me before the game if that’s the kind of game I wanted, I wouldn’t have said yes, but I don’t think there’s any question, teams have to go through that, and we don’t know what’s going to happen down the road, and I told them there’s a lot of teams in this country that would have folded.”
No matter how ugly the win, it’s still a victory and that makes the Illini 4-0 for the first time in 60 years. Yes, 60 years! It also completes their non-conference schedule with a perfect mark, the first time that has happened in a decade. That season also happened to be Illinois most recent Big Ten conference title.
“In the Rose Bowl year, Ball State did the exact same thing to us, and we learned from it,” Zook said postgame.
Actually, I strongly disagree with that assertion. The Illini won that 2007 game Zook is referring to 28-17, and Illinois pulled away much earlier in the 4th quarter of that one, scoring the game’s final points with 11 minutes to go. I see where he’s coming from in analogizing a tougher than expected contest from an underdog MAC foe, but…..giving your opponent the ball with 30 seconds to go and just a three point deficit really isn’t all that similar to having a two possession lead for the final 11 minutes.
WMU is still winless in 21 tries versus a ranked opponent, but Illinois really seems to struggle with Western Michigan. Much like today, they barely escaped at home in 2004, winning 30-27. They also lost to the Broncos at Ford Field in 2008, before one of the worst college football atmospheres ever as the home of the Detroit Lions couldn’t draw even 15,000 fans to that contest.
The Illini defense couldn’t contain WMU QB Alex Carder as he had 206 yards passing by halftime, and he finished 30-48 for 306 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT. Although they did succeed in making the WMU offense one-dimensional. The Illini out-rushed the Broncs 296-35. The Illini came in with the Big Ten’s best, (seventh nationally) run defense at 63.7 yards per game. Today’s effort dropped the average to 56.5 yards per game, so look for that ranking to go even higher.
Freshman sensation Donovonn Young and senior Troy Pollard looked like legitimate starting tailbacks as Young got his first 100 yard day, hitting exactly a C-note on 12 carries. Pollard, the “Bucket of hair” as he’s affectionately known, had a career high 133 yards on a career high 14 attempts.
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