Ashante Williams, a fifth-year senior from Mayfield, Ohio, started the 2011 season on a three-game suspension resulting from a DUI.
As of Saturday night in Tempe, Ariz., he'll be one of the Illini captains after being named defensive MVP in the opening 24-7 defeat of Western Michigan.
After some bumps and skids, Williams is off to a running start in his final collegiate campaign ... and living proof of what it means to a football team for the seniors to buy in and lead. He sparked the Illini with nine tackles and a 60-yard pick-six Saturday.
With former starters Supo Sanni (safety) and Justin Staples (end) scheduled to return this week, that makes 10 contributing seniors on the defensive unit, of whom eight may start. Add crack juniors Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown, both NFL prospects, and Illinois offers one of the nation's most experienced defensive units. It was a top 20 unit nationally a year ago, and it thoroughly dominated the Broncos on Saturday, intercepting three passes while holding them to negative yardage on the ground.
"Ashante is one of the guys who took me under his wing when I came to campus," senior cornerback Terry Hawthorne said. "He has always been humble, and he has worked hard for this opportunity. It means a lot to have so many seniors on the unit. We've been together a long time. There is a feeling of togetherness."
Follow the leader
Williams is inspired by his new role as a team leader.
"If I work hard, I know others will follow suit," he said. "I feel that my game has improved tremendously."
Williams first benefited from an injury to Trulon Henry, which allowed him to start the last three games of 2011.
And now he has the extra benefit of having head coach Tim Beckman as his position coach.
"During individual drills, Coach Beckman works with the 'star' position (half-safety, half-linebacker)," Williams said. "It's fun, but it's scary to have the head guy at your position. He pulled me aside early and gave me a lot of confidence. I didn't prepare as I should have last year after I got in trouble. I lost my position and had to play catch-up. The coach gave me a fresh start, and I hit it running."
For any new head coach, it is always critical to bring the seniors to your side.
"How these seniors are responding is huge," Beckman said, "because it is not always the case. They've done a great job buying in."
Add note on seniors: It helps when veterans are handling the ball (one turnover Saturday). QB Nathan Scheelhaase is a fourth-year student and third-year starter. Center Graham Pocic started his 27th game and never came out. Zak Pedersen is the fifth-year long snapper and received the award for special teams. And senior transfer Tommy Davis handled punts in a tricky wind.
Scores on a single day are not necessarily an accurate representation of comparative strengths.
— Michigan State was dramatically superior to Boise State but kept shooting itself in the foot with all variety of backfires before winning. You can point to shoddy quarterbacking, that's true, but if the teams played again, all things equal, Michigan State would win by three touchdowns.
— Penn State is better than Ohio and had the lead, only to be victimized by several incredible aerial strikes, one a deflection for a lucky Ohio TD and another pinpoint bomb along the sideline. The Nittany Lions' defense was strong but was helpless against these remarkable completions.
— Wisconsin got a scare from Northern Iowa and, OK, maybe the Badgers are overrated without quarterback Russell Wilson. But the guess here is that they'd thump Northern Iowa in a rematch.
On the other hand, some results looked appropriate:
— A Michigan team with four injury setbacks, two suspensions and serious graduation losses could play Alabama every day and twice on Sunday, and the outcome would be the same. Alabama is overwhelmingly superior.
— Illinois was aided by a clunker offensive performance by Western Michigan, but it was clear the Broncos were overmatched against Michael Buchanan and the veteran UI defense. This wouldn't change if they met again.
— Iowa squeaked past Northern Illinois 18-17 in Chicago. If they played again, it would be another squeaker.
Just the ticket
The Big Ten has become a conference with two defined football "divisions" based on attendance: Along with Iowa, purring along with 70,000 sellouts, six others are drawing at least 80,000 and mostly more. These are the ones vying for Top 25 positions. And then there's the quintet attracting fewer than 50,000 on most Saturdays ... Illinois, Purdue, Indiana, Minnesota and Northwestern.
The long-term record shows a clear connection between winning and attendance. For Illinois, the telltale game was last Oct. 15 against Ohio State, when the Illini were 6-0 and ranked No. 16, and drew barely 55,000 even with Buckeye fans contributing.
The key is advance season ticket sales. And it gets harder to sell season tickets if the fans know they can "cherry pick" and buy a good ticket on game day.
We can point to rain Saturday, but one longtime fan emailed me as follows: "It was mostly the weather, but I've never seen this level of indifference starting a season. I must have asked 25 people, and no one challenged that premise."
It's a long pull back from the string of sellout crowds over 70,000 in the 1980s. The stadium won't even seat that many now.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.