Illinois erupts to first win

After an interception, Illinois corner back Kelvin Hayden (6) runs it back for a touchdown at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Tim Eggerding

By Lisa Koulias

For senior cornerback Kelvin Hayden, it was like a dream.

Actually, it was a dream.

In Illinois’ 52-13 win over Florida A&M; on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, Hayden had two interceptions and a touchdown, just like he dreamt he would the night before.

“Last night I really couldn’t sleep,” Hayden said. “I envisioned myself having a pick and running in for a touchdown. Truly I did. And it came true.”

But it wasn’t just Hayden who was the star of the game. It was a complete team effort as the Illini picked up their first win of the season. After going 1-11 last year, the big win to start things off is just what the team wanted.

“We haven’t had a win like that around here in a long time,” fullback Jason Davis said. “It feels good to get the fans behind you and the student body behind you. You do that every win. We haven’t had a lot of wins around here, so it feels good to do that. The team wasn’t thinking; it’s just a reaction.”

Pierre Thomas led the offensive attack as the sophomore running back ran for 143 yards and two touchdowns. Thomas had 14 carries and averaged 10.2 yards per carry. Sophomore E.B. Halsey rushed for 81 yards and also picked up two touchdowns.

“We came out and executed well today,” senior quarterback Jon Beutjer said. “I was really proud with the offensive line giving the running backs a big hole to run through and giving me time to throw the ball. They did a really good job for us.

“We didn’t turn the ball over and we got four or five turnovers. If we keep doing that, we’re going to do well this season.”

Beutjer finished the day 16-of-18 for 228 yards and one touchdown. That was a career-best in completion percentage for the senior who left the game in the third quarter.

The Illini defense, which was a big question mark for the team this season, held Florida A&M;’s offense to only 358 total offensive yards (71 rushing, 287 passing), compared to Illinois’ 554 total offensive yards.

“We showed that we are still a work in progress, we’re more athletic over there (on defense), and we are going to continue to get better,” head coach Ron Turner said. “If we keep flying around and hitting like we did today, good things are going to happen. Our defensive staff came up with a great plan. I told our guys if we focus on ourselves good things are going to happen.”

The most impressive stat the defense put up was the three turnovers they forced. Hayden, who moved to defense after leading the Illini in receiving last season, had two interceptions and forced a fumble that was recovered by senior Mike O’Brien. The Illini only had two interceptions all last season.

“That’s one of our defensive goals, to get three turnovers a game,” senior linebacker Matt Sinclair said. “We’ve worked on it all camp. We’ve been trying to get after it. That’s why we do up-downs or pushups after dropping an interception in practice because as you saw today, those interceptions and turnovers mean points for the offense.”