Illinois football team defeats Eastern

By Jason Grodsky

There may have been post-game fireworks planned at Illinois’ home football opener Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, but the Illini offense took it upon itself to start the fireworks show a bit earlier than expected.

The Illini offense compiled 519 yards of total offense in its 42-17 season-opening rout over Eastern Illinois. Of the Illini’s 519 yards, 345 of them came on the ground and all six Illini touchdowns came via the ground game.

Senior Pierre Thomas led the way with 126 rushing yards on 15 carries and two touchdowns, while fellow senior E.B. Halsey finished with 85 yards on 11 carries with a touchdown and sophomore Rashard Mendenhall added 75 yards on ten carries to go along with two touchdowns of his own.

“The offensive line did amazing,” Thomas said. “They opened up big holes for us and we all just hit them. Rashard played great and was out there flying around. Everyone was waiting for him to just break a big one.”

It was the first time Illinois compiled over 300 yards of rushing since the Illini’s 63-21 win over Virginia in the 1999 MicronPC.com Bowl.

“I think when you can put that many yards up rushing it really says something,” Illinois head coach Ron Zook said. “It’s hard to rush for that many yards against anybody. When we can run the football like that it takes a lot of pressure off of us.”

While the rushing game received most of the credit for the Illini’s offensive success, its passing game showed large improvements from last season.

Senior starting quarterback Tim Brasic went 13-17 and threw for 149 yards, and led the Illini on scoring drives of 90, 83, 80 and 54 yards. Brasic also added 38 yards on the ground on six carries and found the endzone on a four yard run midway through the third quarter that put Illinois up 35-14.

“Tim did a great job of running the offense,” Zook said. “He has worked his tail off this off season and coach Locksley has done a great job working with him. Tim is a great competitor and loves to compete, and he showed everybody that.”

Illini freshman quarterback Isiah “Juice” Williams would make his highly anticipated debut on the Illini’s first drive of the second quarter.

Williams lead the Illini offense to its third consecutive touchdown, taking the Illini on a 12 play, 61-yard drive that was capped off by a one yard touchdown run by Mendenhall.

However, Williams wouldn’t fair as well in his second drive, fumbling the ball away at the Illini’s 33-yard line while scrambling out of the pocket.

Williams would finish the game 2-of-4 for 25 yards passing and would rush for 26 yards on four carries.

“Juice did well for his time out,” Zook said. “We knew we had to get him time out on the field and we stuck with our original plan that we had prior to the game. He put the ball on the ground once, but that was the only bad thing he did, and he’ll learn to tuck that away as he gets more experience.”

Fellow freshman quarterback Eddie McGee did not get a chance to see the field in the Illini’s first game of the season – as some thought he would – because the Illini wanted Williams to have a chance to gain a little more control of the offense, Zook said.

While the Illini offense put up large numbers in its first outing, it did fumble the ball away three times. One led to a Panthers touchdown in the second quarter.

“Give Eastern Illinois a lot of credit, they have one of the best defenses in Division I-AA, but we’re not going to go very far if we continue to turn the ball over,” Zook said.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Illini looked much improved from last season, holding Eastern to just 293 yards of total offense and caused two interceptions, including one by true-freshman cornerback Vonte Davis who picked off a pass in the endzone that ended a Panthers scoring threat early in the second half.

“I thought our defense was solid all game,” junior linebacker J Leman said.

“They pulled a few trick plays on us in the first half and that’s something we have to be ready for. But I saw a lot of improvement from last year and I was really impressed with all the rookies, especially Vonte who played really well and came up with a big interception,” he added.

Despite the large improvements from last year’s defensive unit, the Illini defense did give up a few big plays over the course of the game, including a 38 yard pass play on third-and-two that would set up a 20-yard touchdown pass for the Panthers early in the second quarter.

“We can’t turn the ball over and we can’t give up the big plays,” Zook said. “But all those things are correctable and the guys know that. Teams always make the most improvement in between the first and second weeks, and that’s what we plan to do.”

While the Illini know they have to improve and step up their preparation for their game against Rutgers next weekend, they are still excited about getting their first notch in the win column since last year’s 40-19 win over San Jose State on Sept. 10, 2005.

“We were all so anxious to get out there and play, especially the new guys,” Thomas said. “We came out flying around and having fun and we played a great game. It feels great to get that first win.”