UI notebook: Pollard locked in
In the first four years of his Illinois career, Troy Pollard never went over 100 yards rushing in a game. Zero. Zip. Zilch.
Now, he's done it twice in three games.
Affectionately known as "Bucket of Hair," the senior from Florida had a career-best 133 yards Saturday against Western Michigan. That topped the 101 yards he had against South Dakota State.
But the game against the Jackrabbits was a blowout. Against the Broncos, Illinois needed every one of Pollard's yards.
For the second time this season, he had a 40-plus-yard run. This time, he didn't get dragged down from behind by a linebacker. Instead, he found extra yards on a 49-yard scamper that set up Derek Dimke's winning field goal.
"Hopefully I'll be safe this week and they won't talk about me getting caught from behind," Pollard said.
Pollard has more yards this season than in any of his previous years. He's happy to be contributing.
"I'm just taking it all in right now and enjoying the moment," Pollard said.
Pollard's teammates are thrilled for him.
"I'm just happy and excited that he's finally able to be in the spotlight," freshman tailback Donovonn Young said.
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A week after fumbling an exchange, Young held onto the ball Saturday. Mostly.
At the end of a 59-yard run, the Western Michigan defender popped the ball away from Young. But it went out of bounds and Illinois maintained possession at the 9.
"I thought I was good because I saw the ball go out of bounds," Young said.
Young had the first 100-yard game of his career, hitting it right on the number. With Jason Ford (eight for 23) bottled up, Young was needed.
"I'm glad that (the coaches) saw that I can contribute," Young said.
Illinois coach Ron Zook said he plans no changes in the depth chart at tailback, where Ford is listed as the starter.
"You can't have too many running backs," Zook said.
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Jay Prosch finally got to carry the ball. But it didn't quite go the way the sophomore fullback hoped it would.
Prosch was called on for a fourth-down-and-goal run in the second quarter. Problem was that all he saw when he took the handoff was a wall of Illinois blue jerseys. And no hole to squeeze between.
Prosch gave it the old college try, churning his legs and pushing the ball close to the end zone. But Western Michigan stopped him short.
"That's my first handoff," Prosch said. "I want the next one to go better, for sure."
If it's any consolation, Zook said Godzilla wouldn't have made the yard, either.
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The Illini had to play the second half without star offensive tackle Jeff Allen. He was ejected for a personal foul on the last play of the first half, a Hail Mary pass from Nathan Scheelhaase that was intercepted by the Broncos.
"I didn't see the play," Zook said. "The referee said when (Allen) buried him, he put his head down."
Without Allen, the Illini turned to redshirt freshman Simon Cvijanovic, who battled with Michael Heitz for the other starting spot during training camp.
Cvijanovic found out at halftime that he was going in.
"I still don't know why Jeff wasn't in the game anymore," Cvijanovic said. "They just told me, 'Simon, get ready.' I was ready to go first quarter."
Allen was in the locker room for the second half. Allen gave Cvijanovic advice about playing against the Broncos.
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He won't count it as a game winner. Those come in the closing minutes. But Illinois doesn't win Saturday without Dimke's 21-yard field goal with 8:14 left, which gave it the lead for good.
"That's part of the process of the field goal unit doing its job," Dimke said.
Dimke hit two other field goals, making him 6 for 6 this season.
"Everyone was blocking real well," Dimke said. "(Zak) Pedersen was giving great snaps. Tim (Russell) was holding great. They made my job easier."
Illinois could have sent Dimke out for another field goal try in the final minutes. Instead, Zook called for a run on fourth down that fell a few inches short.
"We had faith in our offense," Dimke said. "We didn't get it, but the defense came through, stepped up."
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The rugby punt was back. With mixed results.
Ryan Lankford's first attempt went 50 yards. That's the good part. The second went 21. Not so good.
"You can never really be satisfied with any performance," Lankford said. "I know I can do better."
Lankford had a touchdown catch called back because of a penalty.
"Of course, I'd like to have the six points on the board," Lankford said. "But it's a team effort."
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Eddie Viliunas waited more than three seasons to get his first college reception.
When it finally came, it was big for the Illini redshirt junior and his team.
On Illinois' second possession of Saturday's game, Viliunas' first career catch and run went for 39 yards, taking the Illini to the Western Michigan 8-yard line. Two players later, Scheelhaase connected with another tight end, Evan Wilson for a touchdown that gave the Illini a 6-0 lead.
"It was awesome," Viliunas said of his first catch.
And a long time coming for the former walk-on, who joined the team in 2008.
"It was kind of a weight off my shoulders," he said. "It feels good to be out there and finally get my first catch."
Viliunas joined the program as a quarterback, but the LaGrange Lyons graduate was moved to tight end in his second season.
"Usually I'm the one throwing 'em, but now I'm catching 'em," he said. "I'll do whatever it takes for the team to win."
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Illini tight ends combined for five receptions and 81 yards, with Wilson grabbing three passes and freshman Jon Davis one. Entering the game, those two plus Viliunas had a combined two catches this season.
"It was great for us to show up," Wilson said of the tight end corps. "And I think it was really our time to really dominate a game, and that's what we had to do this game for our team to get the 'W.' "
On his 11-yard TD reception, a teammate ran an underneath route that left Wilson, running a deeper pattern, one-on-one with a Broncos safety.
"We know that a lot of teams have been jumping our underneath routes cause we hit 'em a lot during the games," he said. "All I had to do was beat the safety coming across, and I did. And Nate put it right in the right spot."
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Reilly O'Toole knew he would see action Saturday. The Illini freshman quarterback just didn't know when.
"I was excited," he said. "Whenever it came I had to be ready, so I was just ready throughout the game."
O'Toole's time came on the first snap of the second half, when he and Wilson connected on a 20-yard pass.
Then, for a few more plays, O'Toole and Scheelhaase alternated on the field every other play.
"It's a little bit different," he said of the shuttle. "But it's fine. Any way I can help the team."
O'Toole finished 3 of 6 for 34 yards.
"It was OK," he said when asked to rate his performance. "I almost threw a pick six on the second play I was in there, but it was all right. The plays that I did have completions on, the receivers did a really good job on. I had time (to pass) on every single one of my plays, so I can't argue with that."
Bob Asmussen and Jeff Huth