UFR: It's all good
Upon Further Review — Paul Klee's take on the Illini's 24-7 win against Western Michigan:
— No matter the sport, special athletes stand out on a crowded playing field. Michael Buchanan is that caliber of athlete. He forces you to notice him. Western Michigan certainly did. So has the NFL. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound defensive end is a unique talent on a defense with a half-dozen of them. One longtime observer — OK, it was Loren Tate — noticed subtle shades of Simeon Rice in Buchanan. Eclipsing Whitney Mercilus' 16 sacks — a number that led the nation last season — is unlikely. Still, if Buchanan continues to wreck opposing offenses, he'll go higher than Mercilus' No. 26 in the NFL draft. He was every bit as disruptive in the opener with a sack and two tackles for loss. That's not all. Buchanan hurried the quarterback twice, broke up a pass and, yes, made his first career interception. As beastly as he is, perhaps whoever broke Buchanan's jaw should be on scholarship, too.
— Did you know Tim Beckman's Toledo squad led the MAC in penalties last year? The Rockets committed an alarming 95 penalties over 13 games. That came as a surprise after Saturday's relatively clean debut. Illinois was 44 seconds away from a penalty-free first half — no small feat in a season opener. The Illini finally were caught cheating with a holding penalty on lineman Hugh Thornton, the first of five flags. That kind of discipline can make a difference, particularly in close games, when the talent level evens out.
— Back to the defense. Beckman has lamented a lack of depth on the roster. What he does have, however, is a half-dozen NFL-caliber athletes on that side of the ball. It looked the part of a big-play defense. The signature highlight on BTN will be Ashante Williams turning momentum with a 60-yard pick-six. The aforementioned Buchanan spent his Saturday in the Broncos' backfield. There seemed to be two Jonathan Browns. Akeem Spence plugged running lanes, and Western Michigan had minus-6 rushing yards. Terry Hawthorne was Terry Hawthorne, collected and smooth. These types of athletes will overwhelm lesser competition, such as they did against the MAC visitors. It's when they line up against the Michigans and Wisconsins — rosters with comparable athletes — that depth becomes more of a factor.
— This space could be blank, really. As the final score indicates, Saturday was a promising start. We'll go with this: Who let A.J. Jenkins skip town? The passing game was erratic and anemic. Roughly half of the Illini's passing yards came on one play, a 64-yard catch-and-run from Nathan Scheelhaase to Ryan Lankford. Otherwise, the aerial aspect looked like the Bears with Caleb Hanie. The passing attack should be a concern going forward, particularly if their veteran starting quarterback is sidelined for an extended period of time with an ankle injury.
— Rain, rain, go away. Come again when Michigan plays. Wait, it didn't rain at Saturday's game? Despite overcast skies, there was nary a drip after kickoff. The first raindrops from Tropical Storm Isaac arrived in downtown Champaign at 10:34 p.m. Friday. It poured at 7:36 a.m. Saturday. But the sky was dry once the game started. Unfortunately, the expectation of rain scared away thousands of fans. Three hours before kickoff, there were about one dozen cars in the Loyalty zone and the grass lots were 10 percent full, maybe.
Mike Thomas said there was "never a discussion" about postponing the game due to wet weather — yet another wise decision from the AD.
"You talk about the wind and the rain, (but) lightning is the thing that draws the most issues," Thomas said. "That's when you hold up the game or suspend activity."
— Here's a first for a second-guess: Western Michigan's chinstraps. The only thing more questionable than the Broncos' ball security (four turnovers) was the security of their helmets. There must have been five occasions when a play ended with Broncos headgear rolling across the FieldTurf. Better yet, let's chalk it up to the Illini's hard-hitting, helmet-removing defense. When these guys hit, it puts chinstraps in danger.
— The impact of the turnover was evident in three early finishes featuring Big Ten teams. Illinois was outgained by Western Michigan but forced four turnovers in a 17-point win. Northwestern was outgained by Syracuse (337 to 596) but forced three turnovers in a one-point win. Penn State committed three turnovers in a loss to Ohio.
— Even now, some in the Penn State community can't seem to grasp the big picture. During Saturday's season opener against Ohio, someone placed a creepy, life-sized cardboard cutout of Joe Paterno in a luxury suite. It looked as if the late coach was standing in the window. The gesture came across as another example of portraying JoePa as the victim of a big, bad witch hunt. By now we're all in agreement that isn't the case, correct? Please, Penn State. Don't make it even harder to root for your return.
— Minnesota was the first Big Ten program to open its season and did so successfully. Jerry Kill's Gophers won 30-27 on Thursday at UNLV. Among the TV observers was Paul Kowalczyk. As the athletic director at SIU, Kowalczyk made the outside-the-box and brilliant decision to hire Kill as the coach of the Salukis. "He hasn't changed a bit," Kowalczyk said Saturday. In August, Kowalczyk was hired as a senior associate athletic director at Illinois. And Mike Thomas added a good one in Kowalczyk, whose forward thinking led to the Salukis' renaissance a few years back.
In the stadium
— Roughly two hours before kickoff, a familiar face took a break next to the Red Grange statue outside Memorial Stadium. The voice was even more familiar. "I can't find anyone I know," Gene Honda said with a laugh. Chicago sports fans certainly know his voice. It boomed through the loudspeakers Saturday in Honda's first appearance as the part-time public-address announcer for Illinois football. "He's a legend," said Mike Cation, who handles P.A. duties for Illinois basketball. Honda is best known for his P.A. calls with the Blackhawks and White Sox. The UI alum also handles Final Fours. Illinois will get well acquainted with Honda this football season — as well as in Hawaii, where he will serve as the P.A. announcer when John Groce's squad plays in the Maui Invitational.
— He's gone through the NBA summer league and survived a whirlwind offseason. "I've lived out of a bag basically for six months now," Meyers Leonard said Saturday during a return to the Illinois campus. His pro career soon will begin in earnest. The former Illini departs for Portland on Tuesday. The Blazers open training camp Oct. 2. So far, the transition has been smooth. "A lot of people ask me about the pace of the game and the skill level, but I really haven't had any problem keeping up with that," said Leonard, who was selected No. 11 overall in the NBA draft in June. "I would say the grind of the overall 82 games — 41 at home, 41 away — will be an interesting task."
Leonard is about 250 to 254 pounds, and Portland trainers have warned against adding too much weight too soon. Over time, they would prefer if he added weight to withstand the NBA wrestling matches that take place in the paint. His NBA contract, which will pay him $2 million-plus in his first year, allowed him to add a sharp new ride, as well. The Porsche Panamera Turbo has legroom suitable for a 7-footer. He's also on the brink of an endorsement deal with Nike. He also has a deal with a trading-card company. "We had Michael Jordan cards (growing up). That was awesome. I had a LeBron James card in middle school," Leonard said. "Just to see my face on (one) and the fact that people actually want them, that was kind of a unique feeling."