Illinois football players, fans go beyond one columnist’s expectations

By Kyle Betts

I’ll gladly eat my own words when they’re fed back to me, and today is no exception. In Friday’s column, I wrote the Illini would defeat the Indiana Hoosiers, but I also said it would be an ugly win. I predicted the team would play down to the competition and barely sneak away with a close victory at home.

I was wrong. About 42 points wrong.

Not only did the Illini dominate the Hoosiers in all phases of the game, but they also played with a determination they’ve yet to show this year. This was the type of game the Orange Nation has been waiting for and maybe this is the game that will turn around an otherwise unfulfilling season.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t surprised the Illini were able to put up huge stats Saturday. We know this team is filled with talent. But it was the manner in which they won that was surprising. They played like they knew they had to win. They played like they knew they were the better team. They played like a team that knew what it was doing.

Who knew they had it in them? Not me.

I mean, who knew the special teams would finally play with some pride and outperform Indiana’s stars?

Before the game, I completed the Kubler-Ross model for the Five Stages of Grief that brought me to accept a touchdown from Hoosier return man Marcus Thigpen. I was ready for the worst.

Instead, Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins was the one with a return touchdown on a kickoff. Even more impressive, the coverage team contained Thigpen by breaking down in their tackles and maintaining disciplined lane assignments. For once, the Illini’s special teams actually contributed to a victory.

Offensively, who knew quarterback Juice Williams and wide receiver Arrelious Benn would take a back seat to a freshman?

I could write an entire column about the play of freshman running back Jason Ford and his huge night against the Hoosiers, but I’ll save that duty for someone else.

After featuring a running back by committee for the first half of the season, Ford may have just penciled himself in as the starting back for the remainder of 2008. With 172 yards rushing (9.1 average), three touchdowns and – most importantly – zero fumbles, I don’t think anyone would complain if he got the majority of the rushing touches from here on out.

“We often say one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity, and Daniel (Dufrene) had put the ball on the ground a few times the last few games,” Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. “We wanted to give Jason a shot to see how he’d respond. As the game went on, we didn’t intend on him being the workhorse, but the more he ran it the better he looked.”

While we’ll find out a lot more about Ford in the coming weeks, what impressed me most was his North-South running. Unlike Dufrene, Ford doesn’t try to juke past defenders. Instead, he runs right through them. His style is violent and angry but complimented by speed. He played like a guy who wants the ball on every carry.

Defensively, who knew the Illini would be the team getting in the quarterback’s grill all night?

With last season’s NCAA sack leader (16) Greg Middleton lining up in crimson and cream, it was the front four in orange that stole the show. The Illini defense had four sacks in the night and were in Hoosier quarterback Ben Chappell’s face on several plays. Chappell rarely looked comfortable in the pocket and was forced to throw several passes early.

The Hoosiers still ran for 141 yards, but the defensive line finally started to live up to the hype. Sure Indiana’s offensive line is inexperienced, but maybe this is the game that will jump start the whole defense.

Finally, who knew the Illini fans would get so into this game?

After a heartbreaking loss to Minnesota last week, it would be very easy for the fans to be a little down for this game. Instead, they were jacked up from the beginning – it helped that paratroopers dropped in while “Highway to the Danger Zone” was blasting over the PA system.

How could you not get excited about that? Come on.

Even more surprising though was how much the fans wanted more even after the game was basically over. With less than two minutes to play in the fourth quarter, the student section booed Zook’s decision to take a knee. I have never seen the Illini faithful so thirsty for more points. It was actually intimidating.

We saw a glimpse of the potential this team has. It dominated Indiana inside and out. The Illini were relentless on offense, defense, special teams and play-calling. For once I have no complaints.

I think we all knew they were a good team but this good?

Maybe the only ones who knew were the players.

Now hopefully they won’t make us all eat our praising words next week in Madison.

Kyle Betts is a graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]