CHAMPAIGN — It was a perfect day for football.
An early-morning rain sank the black rubber pellets deeper into Memorial Stadium's glistening new artificial turf, and it stopped two hours ahead of kickoff. Excellent drainage prevented any on-field slippage. As the clouds steadily parted, the sun blasted through in the fourth quarter.
Something over 20,000 brave souls left their couches. There's "sand" in the song but not in our hearts.
To be fair, you couldn't blame stay-at-homers, particularly those facing long journeys, from being spooked by the Isaac forecast. We have, after so many Illini disappointments, become a timid clan. We are not to be confused with Michigan's hardy, demanding followers, nor a real football state, Ohio.
The Buckeye legions would clear out their basements and meet Isaac with defiance and a raincoat. Michiganders have learned to scoff at snowstorms.
We wouldn't last 15 minutes in the SEC, where football comes first and personal inconvenience a distant last. Missouri is making that venture at the risk of annihilation. They better be ready.
Maybe we're smarter. There is some value to a level head. But in the Big Ten, we're up against maniacs, and you'll never win that battle with indifference.
So Tim Beckman is discovering: There's a lot more to this Illini project than trying to shut out Western Michigan. The good fans are frail. Not all of them, but there are those carrying a TelePrompTer in their brain with a concession speech ready. They need a kick in the butt because, face it, sales of 43,441 (most of them discounted) are barely better than MAC numbers. These are Indiana numbers.
This isn't me telling you to come to the game if you don't want to. But this is me telling you that no program will excel at the major college level without a few more fanatics rattling the cages, a few more unwilling to risk getting their ball caps wet.
The Illini did what was asked of them Saturday, 24-7. They took advantage of Western Michigan's shortcomings, the Broncos fouling their early possessions with a blown coverage, a penalty, a drop, an errant snap, a shanked punt and an interception.
The veteran UI defense made the Broncos appear erratic and inept. Tim Banks' gang held Western Michigan to minus-6 yards rushing, encouraged six fumbles and picked off three passes. They made future pro Alex Carder look like an amateur, particularly on a throw that Ashante Williams returned 60 yards for the fourth-quarter clincher.
Offense is another matter. On the UI's fourth play of the game, on a call that co-coordinator Chris Beatty anticipated from his knowledge of the Bronco defense, Nathan Scheelhaase ran a play-action fake and fired deep to an unguarded Ryan Lankford for a 64-yard score. That took the pressure off, and Illinois controlled the day.
"We caught them in something (a 3-3-5 defense), and we thought we'd strike up the band early," Beckman said.
Illinois' future will revolve around the ability to complete more of those vertical passes. They need a downfield threat to open up the running game.
After the fourth play Saturday, the Illini completed one pass over 10 yards (tight end Eddie Viliunas' 13-yarder set up the second TD). Scheelhaase threw for more yards on one play than he did the rest of the day (64 to 62), and that was Lankford's only catch. When Scheelhaase left in the third quarter with a sore ankle, Reilly O'Toole produced two completions for 7 yards. Illinois managed one first down in the last 22 minutes, and that came on a 4-yard interference call.
A word on special teams. It was better, OK ... but.
Justin DuVernois punted well with the wind and, no surprise, poorly against it. New kicker Nick Immekus missed a 45-yard field goal and made a 43-yarder. Coverage was mediocre, Western Michigan's Jaime Wilson returning three punts for 31 yards.
"We need better placement of the punts," Beckman said.
Of O'Toole, he said: "We stuck to the same game plan when Reilly came in, but he made some adjustment calls that didn't work.
"Defensively, a couple of seam routes hurt us. But overall we got good pressure up front, and the linebackers covered well. Michael Buchanan is a heck of a player."
Buchanan, who had an interception on a deflection, said: "I'm working on some new pass-rush moves, trying to work the tackle upfield and make a counter move back inside."
Beckman continued to rave about Williams, who plays a hybrid position called "star" and is coached directly by Beckman much of the time.
"He's a leader. He's been that way for the eight months I've been here," the coach said.
The biggest gains are usually made from Game 1 to Game 2, and that's what Beckman is counting on when the Illini travel to Arizona State. That late-night affair is one of seven tossup games marked on my calendar, the Illini being favored in three others and facing underdog roles on the trips to Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State.
— Biggest surprise: Jon Davis didn't catch a pass but was effective on six runs up the middle, gaining 54 yards.
— Substitution: It wasn't quite what we expected in the offensive line. Graham Pocic started his 27th consecutive game at center, and coach Luke Butkus kept the same five linemen in on every offensive snap.
— Scheelhaase's lone interception originally was ruled out of bounds in the end zone but was changed on video review just prior to halftime.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.