Staff writer Matt Daniels' take on this weekend's Illinois spring game at Memorial Stadium:
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Sixty completions. More than 85 attempts. More than 600 passing yards. The sly smile offensive coordinator Bill Cubit wore when he looked at the final stats indicated he was OK with those numbers. Nathan Scheelhaase looked comfortable in Cubit’s system, both under center and out of the shotgun. He didn’t try to make too many plays with his feet (a common sight last year) and didn’t try to force passes. Donovonn Young looked like he was playing Western Michigan in 2011 — game-high 86 rushing yards on 19 carries, and most impressive, scored three TDs.
The shaggy-haired redshirt freshman made his first spring game memorable. The defensive back picked off two Reilly O’Toole passes in the first half and returned one for a 45-yard touchdown to give the Blue squad a 28-0 lead in the second quarter. He finished with five tackles and looked like he could contribute significantly in the fall for a young and inexperienced secondary. Keep up the interception rate he had Friday once the season starts and watch out. Al Brosky’s single-season record of 11 might fall. We’re kidding. We think.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Tim Beckman has said it before. Can’t turn the ball over that many times. Illinois had five interceptions, with Reilly O’Toole handing out four and negating a night that saw him throw for 362 yards. Miles Osei had the other one on a failed trick play Illinois likely will scratch from its playbook before the season opener against Southern Illinois. Some came on dropped passes or deflected throws, but five turnovers against the likes of Nebraska, Ohio State and others would make for a long, painful Big Ten season.
OK, these weren’t the plays that bring fans to their feet in the fall. And defensive linemen Tim Kynard and Austin Teitsma (three sacks apiece) certainly didn’t mind. Even though the defense didn’t actually sack the quarterbacks — who wore white jerseys to indicate no contact — the Illini defense managed to swarm the offensive line for nine sacks. The offensive line was mixed and matched with starters and reserves, so the cohesion needed wasn’t necessarily there. But giving up nine sacks in a game won’t get it done.
Only reason it’s not an A is because of the four interceptions by Reilly O’Toole. Chase Haslett didn’t get the chance to throw the ball much because O’Toole and Nathan Scheelhaase played practically the entire game. It’s clearly Scheelhaase’s job to lose, although chances are Tim Beckman will continue to say it’s a competition leading up to the season.
No one broke the 100-yard barrier like Josh Ferguson did in the 2012 spring game, but Donovonn Young showed a tenacity and an aversion to stutter-steps in the backfield. Once he received the ball from Scheelhaase, he hit the hole hard, making a quick cut if needed, before heading upfield. Just what offensive coordinator Bill Cubit wants to see. Dami Ayoola showed flashes that he could contribute if called upon, while Ferguson didn’t play because of an ankle injury.
Justin Hardee went up and outleaped two defensive backs to come down with a jump ball and a 33-yard completion, the longest of the night. It also saved O’Toole from having another interception and helped Hardee rack up 104 yards on only six catches. Ryan Lankford caught the only touchdown pass from Scheelhaase and had a game-high nine grabs for 77 yards. Miles Osei appeared capable of making plays (eight catches for 98 yards) but needs to make sure the drops don’t happen with frequency.
Joe Spencer stood out. His block on Donovonn Young’s second touchdown run allowed the running back to scamper virtually untouched into the end zone. Corey Lewis survived the spring game healthy. Those are two positives. The not-so-great news came in the form of giving up nine sacks. A.J. Ricker will have some shoring up to do for a group that will enter the season under heavy scrutiny based on last season’s poor performance.
Five players — Tim Kynard, Austin Teitsma, Teko Powell, Kenny Nelson and DeJazz Woods — all registered at least one sack. Kynard and Teitsma showed a constant ability of getting in the backfield. Each player came through with three sacks. Houston Bates displayed a presence on the edge, providing strong rushes at times, and defensive coordinator Tim Banks said Bates has adapted well to the new Leo position, which is a hybrid defensive end/linebacker.
Mason Monheim answered the question of how the game would end. His interception with the Orange driving for the potential tying score with less than a minute left avoided the possibility of whether Tim Beckman would play overtime — or make the Orange squad go for two. We’ll go with the latter, although Monheim’s diving pick made sure it didn’t happen. Mike Svetina picked up where he left off last season, making 11 tackles, while B.J. Bello had 11 tackles out of his Star position.
Yes, there were the four interceptions by players who didn’t play a game last season (Taylor Barton, Davontay Kwaaning and Clayton Fejedelem). Yet too many times intermediate passes zipped past them. That will happen when you have a fifth-year player like Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O’Toole in his third season. And when you have a player like Darius Mosely — who should technically still be a senior at O’Fallon but graduated early — on the field for significant stretches. Mosely made a team-high 10 tackles for the Orange, too, showing he could find himself vying for more playing time this fall.
Brad Janitz boomed a 61-yard punt. Starter Justin DuVernois wasn’t bad, although his two punts totaled 1 more yard than Janitz’s single effort (62 yards for all the mathematicians out there). Ryan Frain placed three of his six punts inside the 20-yard line. All nine extra-point attempts were successful, even Taylor Zalewski’s one that ricocheted off the left goal post. No returns were allowed on any punts, though, and no kickoffs happened, so it wasn’t a full assessment of the unit.