Illini overcome imperfections for perfect start
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP)
With Illinois trailing Western Michigan 13-10 at halftime Saturday, coach Ron Zook and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino told players that every team faces a game when it has to find a way to win in spite of itself.
''Every great team that's had a great season, at the end, you look back and see a game where you found a way to win,'' sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. ''It's good to do that.''
After rallying to win 23-20, the Illini stayed at No. 24 Sunday in the AP Top 25. They have their first 4-0 start since 1951's national championship team, a perfect record for a team that overcame its imperfections Saturday night.
Illinois has one outing left in its five-game homestand, Saturday's Big Ten opener against Northwestern.
The defense, a major unknown when the season started and still a work in progress, is turning into a big-play machine. Illinois sacked Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler six times. Even though they gave up 306 yards passing Saturday, they hit Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder hard when it counted.
Carder had the Broncos moving on the game's last possession until Michael Buchanan's jarring sack left him on his back. Western Michigan went from confident and driving near midfield to desperate and all but done with the clock winding down.
On offense, Scheelhaase has a sore throwing shoulder and is taking some big hits running the ball. He alternated snaps for a time Saturday with freshman Reilly O'Toole, though he and the coaches insisted that was pre-planned as a way to ease the load on Scheelhaase and his shoulder, not an in-game reaction to any worsening of the injury.
Like Scheelhaase, top tailback Jason Ford has struggled to find running room. He has 215 yards on 62 carries and lost a fumble Saturday that could have cost Illinois the game.
But Troy Pollard, a 5-foot-8 fifth-year senior who didn't have a 100-yard game in his first four seasons, now has two in the past three weeks. That includes 133 yards that helped wear out the Broncos on Saturday night.
''I can't say enough about Troy Pollard,'' Zook said. ''There is a guy who has just done a great job. He keeps his mouth shut. He does what he is supposed to do.''
Behind Pollard, freshman Donovonn Young had an even 100 yards and a touchdown Saturday.
When Northwestern (2-1) comes to Champaign this Saturday, the Wildcats (2-1) expect to have quarterback Dan Persa back for the first time since he tore an Achilles tendon in a win last November over Iowa. Even a rusty Persa might make the `Cats a better team than the one that couldn't handle Army in its last game.
Scheelhaase said the Western Michigan game showed off a facet of Illinois football that was lacking the past couple of years.
''You could feel it when we got into the season - there's a different mentality,'' Scheelhaase said. ''It's exciting. Instead of people getting down on each other, people getting down when things aren't going well, we like when the pressure's on; we like being challenged.''