Given the events of September 11th, 2010, it was far from a sure thing.
By Paul Schmidt
Though the Illinois Fighting Illini brought home a 35-3 win Saturday night against Southern Illinois, it wasn’t like they did so with any particular panache. Still, with Minnesota and Virginia Tech losing to 1-AA teams, and Washington State needing 16 unanswered 4th quarter points to win by one, the win itself is the most important part.
There were some impressive numbers, like Mikel Leshoure’s 115 yards on just 15 carries. A. J. Jenkins furthered the thought that he was Nathan Scheelhaase’s favorite target, snaring 5 balls for 114 yards. Scheelhaase himself was fairly impressive, throwing for 2 TD passes and 229 yards, all while completing 78 percent of his passes.
Still, you were left with the feeling after the game that Illinois not only hadn’t done much impressive during the game, but that Southern Illinois had burned a whole lot of chances. In fact, the Salukis were in the Illinois red zone 5 times during the game, and still could only manage 3 points.
“Obviously, it’s like I told the team in the locker room, it’s hard to win a football game,” said master of the obvious, Illinois head coach Ron Zook. “Games are hard to win. A lot of people don’t realize that. Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely. But the thing I thought was very encouraging is the guys got better. And that’s the thing we’ve got to continue to do, to continue to get better.
“Defensively, we’re getting more and more confidence. Offensively, the offense, I think we’re just a little, little bit away from really, really taking off there,” Zook continued. “I think that you all got to see some of the things that we see Nathan do all the time. You know where he looks like he’s going to run out of bounds, and then throws a touchdown pass right before. Or, when he’s running past the line of scrimmage and then pitches the ball of to Mikel on the option. I think as he gets experience, he’ll just get better and better.”
While Zook continued to say a whole heck of a lot without saying much at all, the team was much more forthcoming.
Whitney Mercilus, starting in place of the suspended Michael Buchanan, had a big game, recording his first career sack, two tackles for a loss and forced a fumble.
“We’re definitely giving the offense more looks, and that seems confusing to the offense,” Mercilus said. “They have to read a new defense on every down. It’s allowing us to play more aggressive than we have been.”
Practicing against the Illini offense is a big part of why this defensive unit is having success, Mercilus thinks.
“Oh wow, Coach Petrino, he is a genius,” Mercilus said. “He gives you so many different looks, it forces you to keep on your toes. It gives you a lot of respect for his offense.”
For Petrino’s part, as long as we see the continued development of young Scheelhaase, the offense will get even more diverse as the season goes on.
“I think so, yeah, the more we improve and get more experience with the quarterback and trust him, then yes, we’ll continue to do that,” Petrino said.
In all, it was a win. Nothing more. Nothing much learned.
Perhaps, when Illinois puts its 12-0 record against the directional Illinois schools on the line again next week against Northern Illinois, we’ll learn more.