CHAMPAIGN – The emotions started flowing for J Leman on Friday night.
During the Illinois team meeting, coach Ron Zook had four seniors talk to the group. The highlight was Leman.
"We were ready to go," Leman said. "The main gist of it is this, I said, 'You young guys, you hear about the rough times. But I don't know if you know about the rough times. Let me tell you about it. Let me tell you about the first four years I played, eight wins, three of those against I-AA teams. We were 2-30 in the conference.' I said, 'Guys, we have a chance to get nine wins this season. We've got a chance to get six wins in the conference. That's triple what we had.' Then I said, 'For all we've proved, proving all these people wrong, beating the No. 1 team in the nation at their house, we still haven't beaten Northwestern. We've got to own this state if we're going to take this thing national.' "
Leman said he's got two regrets about his Illinois career. One is that the seniors in previous years didn't get to enjoy the success.
"Two is that I won't get to play on the national championship teams in two or three years here," Leman said.
Leman's teammates and coaches appreciated the Friday pep talk.
"He fired us up," linebacker Antonio Steele said. "It touched everybody's heart."
Leman was the last one off the field after Saturday's win against Northwestern, saluting the crowd while fighting back tears. He slapped hands with fans near the team's tunnel, then raced into the locker room.
"It was hard to leave," Leman said. "Those fans have been so good to us and myself."
Leman is looking forward to the Illinois bowl game. First, he's got a week off to spend with his family.
"My only prediction is it will be somewhere warmer than Champaign," Leman said. "That's a safe bet."
As he watched the final seconds tick down on his Memorial Stadium career, Leman realized there is no next one for a while.
"That is the way to go out, 9-3 and beating our state rival on Senior Day," Leman said. "It doesn't get any better than this."
Had his father missed Senior Day on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, Illini defensive back Drew McMahon would have understood. After all, New Orleans Saints assistant coach Greg McMahon had a game of his own to work today in Houston.
Then, the former Champaign Central standout got a call from his dad Friday night. Saints head coach Sean Payton had given the elder McMahon permission to miss staff meetings Saturday and jump on a flight to Champaign.
"For the whole week, I didn't think he was going to be able to make it," Drew said. "For him to be back here for my last (home) game really, really means a lot."
Greg McMahon, a UI assistant from 1992 to 2004, was back on the Memorial Stadium turf for pregame ceremonies honoring each of Illinois' 23 seniors. He then watched the first three quarters of the game before leaving to return to Houston.
"I know my dad's glad to make it (back)," Drew said.
McMahon only wishes fellow Illini senior Frank Lenti Jr. had a similar surprise experience. Frank Lenti Sr. was coaching his Chicago Mount Carmel High School football team Saturday in the state playoffs and couldn't make it to the UI game.
"Me and Frank were in the same boat," McMahon said. "But Coach Payton was kind enough to let (Greg McMahon) have some meetings off. I told (Lenti Jr.), 'I wish your dad could be here, too.' But he was really glad for me."
With Illini cornerback Vontae Davis still sidelined by a concussion, Miami Thomas made his starting debut Saturday. Surely there are easier ways for a true freshman to take that step than against a quarterback who's thrown for a Big Ten-leading 3,346 yards this season.
But that's the hand the guy was dealt. By game's end, he'd responded with a few trump cards of his own.
"He did a great job," Illini safety Justin Harrison said after Thomas recorded six tackles during a busy day for the secondary. "He's a great football player, and when Vontae went down he took advantage of the opportunity."
Wildcat rifleman C.J. Bacher threw 49 times and gained 310 yards through the air. But the Illini picked him off twice and limited Bacher to two TD passes, including a harmless one in the fourth quarter.
Thomas filled in for Davis last week at Ohio State when the latter took a shot to the head and had to leave the game. On Tuesday, Thomas was told to be prepared to start against Northwestern.
"It means a lot," the Chicago Morgan Park product said. "I hung around the whole season just ready to be on call. It's a lot to have your first career start as a freshman. Not too many people can experience that. I think I did OK for my first career start."
Thomas' roughest moment came late in the first half, when he was called for pass interference. There was no harm done, however, when Steele intercepted Bacher on the next play.
"I'm not sure it was pass interference," Thomas said. "I just didn't look back (at the ball). If I would have looked back, I probably would have had the interception.
"I felt like I made a couple of minor mistakes. Coach called them freshman mistakes. He told me don't be too down on myself."
The Illini intercepted two Bacher passes Saturday. And, for the first time this season, they actually were credited with return yards.
On his first-half pick, senior Kevin Mitchell fell forward 1 yard. Of the 16 interceptions for the Illini this season, that was the only one with any yardage.
Steele thought he was going to get a whole bunch of yards after his interception late in the second quarter. But he was ruled down.
"I thought it was the NFL," Steele said. "It if was the NFL, I was gone."
Playing his final home game, the junior college transfer had nine tackles to go along with his interception.
"I enjoyed it a lot," said Steele, who was greeted by his mom Linda before the game. "The fans turned up. That really surprised me being that all the students went home for Thanksgiving. It was a great crowd."
Charting their progress
The Illini have been keeping a bowl chart since after the loss to Michigan. Each step listed a different level for the team's postseason goals, with the top line reading "Big-Time Bowl."
"We hit the top," Steele said. "All we can do is sit and wait for the selection committee."
During the summer, Zook said, the team circled six games it thought it needed to win to become bowl eligible.
"Then, we screwed up and won three more," Zook said. "That's kind of a good feeling."
Sophomore receiver Joe Morgan wasn't in uniform Saturday. Zook said Morgan was ill.
"Joe is not feeling well," Zook said. "He's got some issues that way. But he'll be all right."
Receiver Arrelious Benn didn't play in the second half. The Illinois medical personnel said Benn wasn't feeling right, so Zook told them to keep him on the sideline.
Thanks to Xavier Fulton, Martin O'Donnell, Ryan McDonald, Jon Asamoah and Akim Millington, Rashard Mendenhall has a chance to earn Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors.
Of course, the Illinois linemen won't be expecting a piece of the trophy. The praise they've heard from Mendenhall is payment enough.
"Rashard's an incredible back," O'Donnell said. "He makes us look good so many times."
O'Donnell played his final home game at Memorial Stadium. Though he didn't tear up like Leman, he did take a moment to reflect.
"Just walking off the field and seeing the scoreboard, they put up the record 9-3 and 6-2 in the Big Ten, that's something I'll always remember," O'Donnell said.
McDonald gets to experience something that his dad, former Illini center Phil, never did: playing in a bowl game. But his parents certainly will make the trip south.
"Dad gets to go to a bowl game," McDonald said. "That's a very good thing. I'm excited, too."
A year from now, David Lindquist will be the senior playing his final game at Memorial Stadium. So, the defensive tackle wanted to make sure Chris Norwell and the rest of the 2007 class went out with a victory.
Thrilled to be 9-3, Lindquist has even bigger plans for 2008.
"Next year, I think we can do even better," Lindquist said.