CHAMPAIGN — Entering Saturday's 7 p.m. kickoff, the Illini were 14-7 in night games at Memorial Stadium, having won the last four. It's not the preferred time of athletic director Mike Thomas, but it beats those early-morning kickoffs.
"I am not a fan of the 11 o'clock games; I like the mid-afternoon games," Thomas said on WDWS' "Saturday Sportsline." "I think if you can sprinkle your schedule with evening games every year, there are a lot of families that like evening games because they're so busy with kids' activities throughout the day. They say, 'Hey, we can make it in the evening game, 11 is tough, midafternoon is tough, but we can make an evening game.' "
Kickoff times, however, are hardly ever decided by the schools.
"It's definitely dictated by TV, it really is," Thomas said. "I wouldn't have any issues with playing a 6 o'clock game. There are a number of fans who get excited about night games. I think our students get excited about night games. For some of them it's probably tough to get up and make an 11 o'clock game."
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After missing the last two games with an ankle injury, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase returned to the field, starting Saturday's game against Louisiana Tech.
Former Illinois quarterback Kurt Kittner, who works as a radio analyst for the Illini, knows what Scheelhaase was going through the last two weeks. In Kittner's junior year, he suffered a concussion against Ohio State and missed the season finale against Northwestern.
"It (stinks)," Kittner said. "When I sat out that game, if we won, we would have been a bowl-eligible team. We ended up losing, finished 5-6 instead of 6-5. It's tough sitting there, especially when you're playing Northwestern, our big rival. If you're a competitive guy, you want to be out there and it (stinks) when your body won't allow you to do that."
In Scheelhaase's absence last week, sophomore backup Reilly O'Toole set the program record, completing 83.9 percent of his passes (26 of 31) for 333 yards and five touchdowns.
"They went out and executed well last week. Reilly is an accurate quarterback, and if you give him time, he'll complete the football," Kittner said. "They seemed, from up in the booth, miles away, that they played well. You could tell there were some things that they did miss, but it didn't hurt them in respect to winning the football game last week. This week is different."
O'Toole and Miles Osei also saw action at quarterback Saturday. O'Toole started the second half after Scheelhaase was 8-for-11 passing but lost a fumble and had an interception in the first half.
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With respect to Penn State, J Leman declares that Illinois is Linebacker U.
"(Ray) Nitschke, (Dick) Butkus, (Kevin) Hardy, (Dana) Howard and Simeon Rice, I know he played defensive end, but he was an outside 'backer here," said Leman, the former Illinois All-America linebacker.
The Champaign Central product left himself off the list of former greats.
"The only reason I was an All-American is because I had a good D-line and we went to the Rose Bowl. They had to give somebody on our team something," said Leman, who called Saturday's game for BTN.
He does, however, think Illinois has a couple of guys who might be mentioned alongside himself and the other former greats when their careers are over.
"Jonathan Brown attacks the line of scrimmage; you see him on the other side a lot," Leman said. "You see a progression with linebackers, a lot of times they just run to the line. He's being patient, playing with his hands better and playing behind the line of scrimmage. That's why he had so many (tackles for loss) last year."
Freshman Mason Monheim, who started for an injured Houston Bates for the second week in a row, has also caught Leman's eye.
"I was really pleased with the first two plays of the game, (against Charleston Southern), he made a tackle then got the interception. A lot of times, freshmen want to dip their toe in the water and see if they can play. It was good to see," Leman said. "He's really physically developed for a freshman. You see him and he looks legit.
"I think those guys will be up there. I think Jonathan Brown's an All-Big Ten guy. I think next year he can be an All-American, I really do. It's based on the success of the team. You don't see All-Americans on 5-7 teams."
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Scheelhaase and running back Josh Ferguson were among the Illini who returned to the lineup after missing last week's game with injuries. Others were still sidelined with various injuries against the Bulldogs on Saturday.
Wide receiver Darius Millines, safety Steve Hull, tight end Evan Wilson and kicker Nick Immekus all did not dress.
Center Jake Feldmeyer and Monheim started for the second straight week for the injured Graham Pocic and Bates, respectively, who were both in uniform Saturday.