Football blows away expectations

Before the season started, senior tackle Jeff Allen made his one goal for this season very clear: set records. Even after a season in which the Illini led the Big Ten in rushing with more than 246 yards per game, Allen still wanted more.

“I just want to see if we can get (the running game) going,” Allen said. “See if we can break some records.”

While Illinois’ offense rushed for 202 yards and two touchdowns in the season-opener against Arkansas State, the performance was still subpar compared to the offensive line’s lofty standards. They wanted even more, and that’s exactly what they got against South Dakota State, leading the way for a rushing attack that racked up a whopping 364 yards rushing on 50 carries for six touchdowns.

“It was a lot better, a lot better,” center Graham Pocic said about the team’s performance Saturday. “I was very happy with that.”

For Allen, the most impressive part was the changes the team made between the two games.

“I saw a ton of improvement, especially technique-wise, on the offensive line,” he said. “Our grades were great across the board, and we ran for a lot of yards.”

That improvement has even gone beyond the veterans. Redshirt freshman Michael Heitz, who beat out fellow redshirt freshman Simon Cvijanovic in the spring for the starting strong tackle job, has already caught the eye of the coaching staff this season.

“Michael has just competed and done well,” Zook said. “Simon played well, and all those guys played well, and I think it’s good that you got some guys some experience.”

The group could also gain a boost in the near future with the return of Corey Lewis. The junior has been slowly recovering from a knee injury suffered nearly a year and a half ago in the 2010 spring game. The Illini had hoped to have Lewis back and ready to start this fall, but Lewis’ recovery has taken longer than expected. However, the lineman’s journey back could soon be completed.

“I guess it’s next week he goes back out (to the doctor), and he thinks he’ll be cleared, but once again that’s up to the doctors,” Zook said.

Once Lewis is cleared, Zook said the Illini will be cautious about rushing him back into game action.

“It depends on how he is, when he gets back in there,” Zook said.

No matter how soon Lewis returns, the offensive line knows there is always something that can make them better as a unit.

“The thing about football is that you can always make improvements, no matter what it is,” senior guard Jack Cornell said. “There’s never a perfect game or a perfect practice. Every week we come in and we just gotta get better at everything. We take it one day at a time.”