Mendenhall hits the ground rushing

Illinois players enter the field before the 21-0 victory against Western Illinois at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday. Erica Magda

The Daily Illini

Illinois players enter the field before the 21-0 victory against Western Illinois at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday. Erica Magda

By Jason Grodsky

The most carries Illini running back Rashard Mendenhall had taken in a game entering Saturday night’s game against Western Illinois was 14, but after the Illini’s 21-0 victory over the Leathernecks that number was out the window.

The junior back carried the ball 23 times for the Illini, rushing for a team high 139 yards of Illinois’ 277 yards on the ground. Mendenhall also added a touchdown in the fourth quarter to cap off the Illini’s home opener.

“We always talk about touches in our game plan and Rashard was scheduled to get 25 touches, whether it was via the run or catching the ball, and he ended up getting really close to that number,” Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said.

Of Mendenhall’s 24 touches, six went for 15 yards or more, including a 16-yard reception on a screen pass that set up a nine-yard touchdown run by sophomore quarterback Juice Williams three plays later.

It was the third time in his career that Mendenhall broke 100 yards rushing, and the Skokie, Ill., native gave most of the credit to his offensive line for giving him the opportunity to break big runs.

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“Going over 100 yards is a huge credit to the offensive line,” Mendenhall said. “They were creating seams all night. It made my job a lot easier. It’s obvious that they’re gelling. That really helps our team.”

Although Mendenhall did the majority of the work in Illinois’ running game, sophomore Daniel Dufrene and freshman Troy Pollard combined for 87 yards rushing on 13 carries.

Both Dufrene and Pollard broke runs of 20 yards or longer; Dufrene rumbled for a 32-yard touchdown in the second quarter, while Pollard broke off a 20-yard run late in the fourth quarter.

“Everybody can see that Daniel has another gear and we wanted to get Troy into the game and he’s got another gear to him, too,” Zook said. “Troy’s a guy that we’re going to need and use so it was good to get him in and get him a few reps.”

Illini first

Dufrene’s second quarter touchdown run was not only the Illini’s first touchdown at the renovated Memorial Stadium, it was also the junior college transfer’s first career touchdown as an Illini.

Dufrene led the Illini in rushing with 58 yards on six carries against Missouri, but failed to find the end zone in St. Louis. His 32-yard run on Saturday was the longest play from scrimmage on the night and would be the only score for either team in the first half.

“The touchdown was something I was really excited about and hopefully it will be a sign of many more to come,” Dufrene said.

Dufrene’s touchdown wasn’t the only first on the night for Illini. Sophomore cornerback Dere Hick’s interception in the second quarter was the first of his career and the first Illini interception of the year.

Hick’s interception came on the first play of Western Illinois’ drive following Dufrene’s touchdown and would be the only Illini takeaway of the game.

“All week we prepared for that formation and were making adjustments to it, and on that play, we we’re able to communicate well and fortunately, I was able to make the play and intercept it,” Hicks said. “It was just a great experience and moment for me to make a play like that in our first home game.”

Gamble a no-show

After a solid performance against Missouri last weekend, true freshman receiver Brian Gamble watched Illinois’ home opener from the sidelines.

Gamble caught four passes for 48 yards in the season opener against the Tigers, but was held out of Saturday night’s game after what head coach Ron Zook called “a team-related discipline.”

“Brian is going to be a good player but he’s going to have to do it our way,” Zook said. “You have to be a student first and a player second. Brian loves to play and he’s going to be a good football player and the best way to get to Brian is to take something he loves to do away from him.”

Zook said Gamble will be back in action for the Illini’s next game at Syracuse.