Illinois Football collected a win in their season opener this Saturday, pulling out a 42-34 victory over Southern Illinois University. Illinois struggled out of the gate, managing just 3 points on two attempted field goals by kicker Taylor Zalewski. After one quarter, the Fighting Illini trailed 7-3 but never relinquished the lead after a 53-yard touchdown reception by sophomore tailback Josh Ferguson gave them a 10-7 lead.
Illinois’s lead reached 25-7 by halftime after touchdowns by Donovonn Young and Jon Davis and a successful two-point attempt on a pass from tight end Tim Russell, the holder on the extra point team, to Matt LaCosse. SIU cut the lead down 15 in the third with help from a Nathan Scheelhaase interception, a blemish on an otherwise stellar day for the senior Illini quarterback, which set up a Saluki touchdown.
As with every game, there were some positives and some negatives for each side. Let’s take a look at those from the Illini’s perspective:
1. Nathan Scheelhaase: 28/36 416 yds, 2 TD, 1 INT
Not much to fault Scheelhaase for, other than the one interception, as he started off his final season in Champaign with a huge day, throwing for over 400 yards, 340 of them in the first half. Scheelhaase was on target with most of his throws and kept plays alive by scrambling until he could find an open receiver or tucking the ball away and running when nothing else was available. He looked much better than the Scheelhaase of old who would be replaced in the middle of the game by Reilly O’Toole. Instead, Scheelhaase was replaced by O’Toole only after head coach Tim Beckman decided a two-touchdown lead was substantial enough to put in the second string. (O’Toole would fumble on his first drive, leading to an SIU touchdown.) After this afternoon’s performance, Nathan Scheelhaase looks poised to lead his team to a better record than last year.
2. Josh Ferguson: 4 Rec, 103 yds, 9 Car, 49 yds
On an otherwise abysmal day for Illinois rushers, Ferguson made a huge impact out of the backfield with his 152 yards of total offense and the touchdown that put his team ahead for good in the second quarter. Ferguson, a sophomore, showed flashes of speed, vision, and some effective moves in the open field this afternoon, but is not a strong runner between the tackles. If Beckman can find a power rusher to compliment him, the Illini could develop a formidable ground game.
3. V’Angelo Bentley 2 Ret, 120 yds, TD
Bentley not only impacted the game with a 100-yard kick return for a touchdown, but played well at safety, shedding blocks and sniffing out screen passes. Good performance by the fiery sophomore.
4. Defensive Line
The defensive line of Illinois spent the day closing holes for Saluki backs and putting pressure on SIU quarterback Kory Faulkner, shutting down the running game and forcing the Salukis to pass, which turned out to work in SIU’s favor…
1. Donovonn Young: 8 att, 6yds
Those stats speak for themselves. In case you don’t feel like doing the math in your head, that’s an average of 0.8 yards per carry. Granted, the offensive line didn’t exactly blow open a chasm for him every time, but he missed plenty of opportunities to cut upfield. After today’s game, I feel sorry for Young’s girlfriend… And I’ll leave that statement where it is for the time being.
2. The Secondary: 341 yds, 3 TD allowed
The Fighting Illini DB’s are lucky those numbers aren’t bigger. The defensive secondary today relied mainly on drops by SIU receivers and got torched routinely. If they don’t improve quickly, it’s going to be a long fall for these guys chasing after Big Ten receivers.
3. The Offensive Line
Illinois was in the red as far as rushing yards go until the third quarter. That’s not all on Donovonn Young. Also, Scheelhaase was feeling plenty of pressure on the pass rush all game.
Overall, a win is a win, and Illinois will take any of those they can get right now, but when a game against a team like SIU isn’t decided until the last 40 seconds, it can be a pretty good indication of a long season ahead. For now, though, the University of Illinois Fighting Illini are undefeated and in first place.