Scrimmage concludes spring

Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall (5) rushes, chased by defensive back Will Judson (13), during the annual Orange and Blue spring game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Mendenhall ran for 44 yards. The Orange won, 20-17. Adam Babcock

Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall (5) rushes, chased by defensive back Will Judson (13), during the annual Orange and Blue spring game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Mendenhall ran for 44 yards. The Orange won, 20-17. Adam Babcock

By Derek Barichello

There were new faces, pleasant surprises and some lingering problems in the annual Orange and Blue scrimmage concluding the spring season Saturday, but head coach Ron Zook is feeling better about his team this time around.

“A year ago, I didn’t know exactly where we were,” Zook said. “I don’t know that I know exactly where we are now. I do know we are improved from the fall and that the amount of work we were able to get done this spring was two-fold from last spring.”

In the game, the Orange squad, made up of the first-team defense and second-team offense, roared back from a 17-0 deficit to defeat the Blue squad, made up of the first-team offense and second-team defense, 20-17.

“We saw a lot of good things early on from the first team offense,” Zook said. “When we got into the fast-tempo mode it caused the defense some problems.”

The first touchdown of the game came on a play-action pass from quarterback Tim Brasic to wide receiver Frank Lenti for 51 yards. The play showed shades of last season, when the defense was burnt many times on big plays.

“We’re going to pay for those,” outside linebacker Brit Miller said. “It’s better those happen right now so we can get them fixed. We’ll learn more from our mistakes this time around with a veteran ball club.”

The Orange squad’s next possession ended with a Justin Harrison interception, a refreshing moment for the Illini, who finished last in the Big Ten in takeaways last fall.

Brasic and the first-team offense wasted no time, putting the ball in the end zone on a 3-yard touchdown pass to sophomore tight end JR Kraemer.

Overall, the incumbent Brasic finished the day 8-of-18 with 95 yards and two touchdown passes. But it was the passes he did not complete that drew the attention of the coaching staff.

“He missed a couple balls out there. You want to see him be a little more accurate. He threw some behind, but he will continue to get better,” Zook said. “He’s better than he was last fall and I feel confident that he has improved from the fall.”

After two Jason Reda field goals for each squad, tailback and former linebacker Walter Mendenhall took over and opened eyes.

Mendenhall finished as the leading rusher for the Orange with 10 carries for 52 yards. Senior Pierre Thomas finished with a game-high 55 yards on 12 carries, a yard more than E.B. Halsey who rushed for 54 on seven carries.

A 44-yard pass from quarterback Bill Garza to Jody Ellis made it a 17-10 game. Then, Mendenhall took a screen pass from Garza 35 yards for the tying score.

“I got the ball, and I saw the lane open, I saw (offensive lineman) Dan Motuliak make a good block, and all I had to do was outrun the secondary,” Mendenhall said. “There’s nothing like being a running back and getting the ball in your hands. I’m a multi-purpose guy. Wherever they move me, I’m going to do it.”

Mendenhall, who was moved from linebacker to fullback in the spring, and now to tailback, impressed enough to get some time with the first team after Halsey sprained an ankle.

“When he knows what to do, he can do it,” Zook said. “We have confidence in him.”

As far as Halsey’s ankle, Zook said he should be ready to go in a couple weeks and that he will do the workouts he can.

“Offensively, we saw a lot of good things; there were times we got a little sloppy again, those are some things that you worry about a little bit,” Zook said. “Wherever we finish up (Saturday), we want to start right up there in the fall. We wanted to push that level as high as we could.”