Young players rise to challenge against Buckeyes

 

 

By Jason Grodsky

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Illinois football team added its biggest victim to its revenge tour, upending the No. 1 team in the country on the road with big contributions from a few of its freshmen.

In the week leading up to the game, Illini head coach Ron Zook was asked if his talented group of freshmen and sophomores would be intimidated playing at Ohio Stadium for the first time.

Zook felt his players wouldn’t be intimidated but would welcome the challenge of competing against the top-ranked team in the country in its own stadium.

They took the challenge head on.

“I am so proud of our team and of how our coaching staff prepared us for this game,” Zook said. “The players did what we asked them to do. It is definitely a different story from two years ago when we played here. It is evident we have made some progress and the team did what we had to do to come away with a win.”

True freshmen Brian Gamble and Marcus Thomas and sophomore Marques Wilkins all stepped up when it counted most.

Gamble and Wilkins combined to catch four passes for 58 yards and two touchdowns, while Thomas – who replaced an injured Vontae Davis – made his first interception of his career and caused another with a deflection in the end zone during the third quarter.

Gamble also led the Illini with three receptions in the game for 27 yards and his first career touchdown at the end of the first half that gave the Illini a 21-14 halftime lead.

With freshman wide receiver Arrelious Benn tightly covered most of the game and held to only one catch for seven yards, Gamble became one of sophomore quarterback Juice Williams’ primary targets.

“Guys have to step up,” Zook said. “When it becomes rough, we always talk about a time of opportunity. A lot of times, guys get down and they’re upset because they’re not playing, and we always tell them you never know, just keep playing. When your opportunity comes you have to be ready, and I’m so proud of those guys because they made big plays, and Juice put it on them.”

Gamble’s biggest contribution in the game may have come from the sideline during the Illini’s final drive.

With Illinois contemplating going for a first down on fourth-and-inches from its own 33-yard line during an Ohio State time out with less than seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Gamble spoke up to his quarterback, telling Williams to convince Zook to go for it.

“Juice, go tell him you’re going to get the first down,” Gamble said, according to Williams. “If you feel like you’re going to get it, go tell him.”

The converted defensive back’s words of encouragement were exactly what Williams needed, saying that it gave him the “OK” to go confront his coach.

The rest is history.

Mendenhall sits atop the record books

Illini junior running back Rashard Mendenhall broke the Illinois single-season rushing record against the Buckeyes with 88 yards rushing on 26 carries.

The Doak Walker Award candidate has 1,402 rushing yards for the season, surpassing former Illini running back Antoineo Harris’ record of 1,330 yards set in 2002.

The Skokie native rushed for 3.4 yards per carry against an Ohio State defense that came into the game allowing only 65 rushing yards per game.

Illinois hung 260 rushing yards on the Buckeyes, becoming the first team to rush for more than 200 yards against Ohio State since 2001.

“We have a great offensive line,” senior wide receiver Jacob Willis said.

“The receivers and running backs ran hard today and made big plays.

“As an offense, we played great against a great defense,” he added.