True freshman Gay shines under the bright lights


Quentin Shaw

Freshman defensive end Isaiah Gay points to the sideline after making a tackle against Western Kentucky on Saturday. The Illini won 20-7.

By Jacob Diaz, Staff writer

With a 1:34 left in the first half and the score 6-0 Illinois, freshman punter Blake Hayes pinned Western Kentucky back to their own 4-yard line.

On the first play of the drive, freshman defensive end Isaiah Gay broke right through the Hilltoppers offensive line, dropping running back D’Andre Ferby two yards behind the line of scrimmage. Ferby barely made it out of the endzone in front of Block I, who let out a roar as it looked like there might be a safety.

After an Illinois timeout, Western Kentucky QB Mike White dropped back to pass, and almost immediately Gay and two other defenders were right up in his face. To avoid the sack and the safety, White threw up a misguided pass. Linebacker Julian Jones picked it off and returned for the Illini’s first touchdown of the game.

“We got their backs against the endzone, we’re trying to get them to either punt or make an early turnover and get the ball as close to the endzone as possible,” Gay said. “When the defensive line gets out rushing the quarterback and he threw the interception, it was big. It was big for us to score that six.”

White, a quarterback who threw 37 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions last season, was held to 238 yards and 0 passing touchdowns by the Illini defense, who were drastically better than they were week one. Gay played a big part in that improvement when he managed to hit White on the first play of the game.

“It set the tone for the game,” Gay said. “Let them know that we were coming. Let them know I’m here and I’m gonna keep coming.”

Gay played well coming off the bench in week one, but really shined against a much less mobile quarterback.

“It eased up a lot of stress for us,” Gay said. “With a quarterback that can scramble outside the pocket you have to change directions a lot. With a quarterback that stays in the pocket you just stick to your edge rush, get around the tackle.”

That edge rush was an important piece of Gay’s game that got him noticed by Illinois’ coaching staff. While he has proved his worth getting after the quarterback, he will need to put on some size to really challenge in the running game. He weighs about 216 lbs. now, but he said that he hopes to get up to the 250-260 lbs. range by the time he is an upper classmen

But for the night, Gay had done enough to warrant all of the media attention he got postgame. There were audio recorders inches from his face and professional video cameras not far behind, but the camera that caught Gay’s attention was a camera phone way in the back, held high above the rest by a member of his family who had traveled to see him play.

“Coming as far as I did, it really meant a lot to get them to come out here and watch me play,” the Nashville, North Carolina native said. “I just tried my best to show out for them, and put on a show.”

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