No. 24 Illinois survives W. Michigan scare, 23-20

With a halftime lead on Illinois, Western Michigan saw a chance

to relive a little recent history.

The Broncos had held the ball for almost 17 minutes, keeping the

Illini defense on the field and building not just the 13-10 lead

but a bit of confidence. After all, Western Michigan had knocked

off the Illini the last time the teams played, in 2008, and for 30

minutes on Saturday moved the ball on the No. 24 Illini like

another upset was in the works.

That was before Illinois (4-0) turned the ball over to its

running backs, dominating second-half possession and depriving

quarterback Alex Carder and receiver Jordan White of the ball in a

23-20 win.

”It’s gut wrenching,” Carder said. ”Everybody is just sitting

in disbelief that it happened the way it did.”

Carder finished 30 of 48 with 306 yards, two touchdowns and an

interception, while White had his 14th career 100-yard game,

catching 14 balls for 132 yards a TD.

But most of that production came in a first half that ended with

the Broncos (2-2, 1-0 MAC) up by only 3 points and WMU never found

a way to move the ball on the ground. They finished with just 35

yards on 21 carries.

Carder had 100 yards passing over the final 30 minutes and White

was held to four catches and a relatively modest 43 yards.

”Did they out-physical us at the end? Probably,” Bronco coach

Bill Cubit said. ”But during the game I thought our kids did a

pretty good job.”

In all, Illinois had 296 rushing yards on 52 carries, 184 of

those yards in the second half with tailbacks Brandon Pollard and

Donovonn Young sharing most of the load.

”You’ve heard me say this a thousand times,” said coach Ron

Zook, whose Illini are 4-0 for the first time since 1951. ”You

can’t have enough running backs.”

Pollard finished with 133 yards on 14 carries while Young, a

freshman, had 100 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.

”I think I was at the right place at the right time,” Pollard

said. ”It feels pretty good to help out the team as much as you

can, especially when your number’s called and you can do big

things.”

Early on, Carder, White and Illinois’ offensive struggles gave

the Broncos a great chance for a repeat of the 2008 upset that

would have cost Illinois their week-old ranking. The Illini only

moved into the Top 25 with last Saturday’s win over Arizona

State.

With the Illini up 10-3, Western Michigan struck with a 76-yard,

clock-eating drive that ended with a 23-yard field goal from John

Potter that cut the deficit to 10-6.

The Illini ran three plays that went nowhere before backup

punter Ryan Lankford, one of Illinois’ starting receivers, blooped

a 21-yard, rugby-style punt that set up the Broncos at the Illini

39.

Three plays later, Carder hit receiver Chleb Ravenell, who

sidestepped charging safety Supo Sanni and sprinted to the end zone

for a 35-yard touchdown and a 13-10 lead.

”In the first half we were clicking,” said Carder, who faced

heavy pressure and was sacked twice. ”They have a solid D-line and

I’ll tip my hat off to that, but other than that there was nothing

we hadn’t faced before.”

Potter missed a pair of first half field goal tries that could

have meant the difference.

”We stayed toe-to-toe with them the whole time,” Cubit said,

noting the points the Broncos left on the field.

Things only got worse for the Illini after Ravenell’s touchdown.

Illinois moved down the field for a potential score, but offensive

lineman High Thornton was flagged for unnecessary roughness and

Scheelhaase was sacked for a loss of nine yards. His heave into the

end zone was picked off, but another lineman Jeff Allen, was

ejected after the teams jostled on the way to the locker rooms.

The final half was much different. With a first and 10 at the

Western Michigan 14, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase ran left on an

option with Young trailing him, taking the pitch just as

Scheelhaase absorbed a wicked hit.

Young scooted hard around the corner, shooting a gap between

three Broncos defenders and into the end zone. Illinois was back in

the lead at 17-13 with 10:27 left in the quarter.

After a Derek Dimke field goal put the Illini up 20-13, Western

Michigan tied the game late in the quarter on a seven-yard pass

from Carder to White. Early in the fourth quarter, though, Pollard

gave the Illini the edge they would use to win.

On a first and 10 at the Illinois 30, the back squirted out of

the middle of Illini offense and down the right sideline for his 49

yard run, forced out by cornerback Lewis Toller.

A few plays later, with 8:14 left in the game, Dimke hit the

21-yard field goal that put Illinois up 23-20.

Western Michigan travels to Connecticut next Saturday while

Illinois opens Big Ten at home again Northwestern, the fifth

straight home game for the Illini.