Home sweet home: Illinois football wins season-opener for 1st time since ’06

With the tune of “Illinois loyalty” in the background, Illini football head coach Ron Zook and new athletic director Mike Thomas entered the tunnel back into the Memorial Stadium locker room Saturday embraced in a handshake.

After the Illini defeated Arkansas State 33-15, winning their first season opener since 2006, Thomas joined Zook and the rest of the team for their postgame talk and was awarded the team ball.

“He just said congratulations,” Zook said. “He’s excited to be here. Obviously we’re excited to have him here. I congratulated him because he got his first win as the athletic director with the football program. I gave him the game ball.”

For the first time in four years, the Illini opened up their season in Memorial Stadium against a team that wasn’t named Missouri. Zook said he likes the unfamiliar feeling of starting 1-0 and he wouldn’t be opposed to starting the season at home more often.

“I can’t speak for everyone else, but I feel a lot better than I did over the last four years,” Zook said.

“We got one down and there were some things that weren’t quite as pretty as you would want them to be, but overall, as I told our football team, it’s probably exactly where you want to be.”

On the first play of the game, Illinois sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown came off the end untouched, thrust his way into the Arkansas State backfield and tackled Red Wolves running back Sirgregory Thornton for a four-yard loss.

“That was a play Coach Vic (Koenning) called an instinct play,” Brown said. “It just opened up kind of clear and I went in there and made the play. The guard pulled and I saw it open so I shot the gap.”

The play set the tempo, as the Illini controlled the game in the first quarter, using Jason Ford’s bruising running style to push down the field. Ford completed the first seven first downs for Illinois. With 2:06 left in the first quarter, Ford scored the first Illini touchdown of the year. He finished the game with 86 yards and two touchdowns.

“We kind of pounded them early and then they kind of stacked the box so it opened up the passing game,” Ford said. “We executed that early and then everything else opened up.”

But in the second quarter, Arkansas State finally stopped Ford in his tracks, when the 235-pound running back was forced backwards at the goal line for a safety, giving the Red Wolves their first points of the game.

After a pair of Arkansas State field goals Nathan Scheelhaase – who passed for eight yards in the first quarter – connected on a pass to Darius Millines, who shook off his man and sprinted 45 yards into the end zone. Scheelhaase finished with 267 yards and two touchdowns through the air and 24 yards on the ground.

“We made some great adjustments, and that’s something when you’re in your first game you have to do,” Scheelhaase said. “You never really know exactly what the other team is going to do, so Coach (Paul) Petrino was able to make some adjustments. We were able to execute what he had planned for us.”

Scheelhaase connected with Millines five times for 119 yards and a touchdown, but his favorite target of the day was A.J. Jenkins, who ended Saturday’s game with 11 catches for 148 yards, including a 72-yard touchdown catch.

“I’m the best receiver in the Big Ten,” Jenkins said. “You didn’t see my stats? I’m playing, I’m joking. Don’t put that on TV. I think I work harder than the receivers out there. I have the best coach, the best quarterback, the best linemen and the best sidekick in Darius Millines. Just having the best things around me makes me the best receiver in the Big Ten.”

After Jenkins’ first catch of the game, he spun the ball, a celebratory action Ron Zook told the senior receiver he didn’t want to see again.

“A.J. Just needs to play,” Zook said. “I would be shocked if you see that anymore.”

Zook said he was proud of how his defense played despite a few plays the Illini lost to Arkansas State in the red zone.

Moments after Millines’ touchdown grab, Trulon Henry intercepted Arkansas State quarterback Ryan Aplin after his pass was deflected. Henry stuck with the play and bobbled the ball before making the diving catch.

Koenning called the interception “a big play” and stressed that high-energy efforts like Henry’s, where one never gives up, win games.

“We’ve got to have that ‘don’t ever let up’ mentality,” Koenning said. “We’ve used the analogy since early in the year, if you’re at the beach and you’re scooping sand or trying to dig with your hands, as soon as you stop scooping it fills in.

“We have to keep digging, keep digging because the minute we relax, the minute we stop scooping, that hole is going to fill in. That’s mediocrity.”

As the Illini pulled further away from the Red Wolves, Zook inserted Riley O’Toole into the game to replace Scheelhaase, thus putting to bed speculation that the highly touted freshman might be redshirted this season. O’Toole and defensive lineman Michael Buchanan left the game with injuries in the fourth quarter, but neither are expected to miss more than a few days.

“With the attitude of this football team and the way they work we’ll get a lot better,” Zook said. “I think everyone knows you make your most progress, in terms of getting better, between your second and third, third and fourth games. There’s no question we’ll get a lot better.”