Tate: A few spring surprises
Having witnessed so many unanticipated turns Saturday, you should not expect a knowledgeable prognostication of what’s likely 140 days hence when Illinois hosts Youngstown State.
But it’s our job to try. First, the positives from the annual Orange-Blue football game:
With all eyes on Wes Lunt and Aaron Bailey, veteran backup Reilly O’Toole stole the show with 12 of 17 passes for 126 yards, two TDs, no turnovers and 30 net yards on seven scrambles in a 38-7 romp. He started on the winning Blue team ahead of Lunt, who never really got out of the gate.
Nor could we have predicted that senior walk-on Pete Bonahoom would outshine more heavily recruited receivers with seven catches for 95 yards.
Or that Blue cornerback V’Angelo Bentley would return an interception 89 yards to keep the steamroller going in what should have been a tossup contest.
On the negative side, it must be reported:
Illini blockers may have sufficient skills to protect in Bill Cubit’s aerial game, but the ground attack showed no improvement. Neither team rushed for 100 yards Saturday, and that wouldn’t be acceptable at Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State, which are the UI’s first three Big Ten road opponents.
Donovonn Young seldom got out of his tracks, netting 2 yards in 15 carries.
Cornerbacks may be improving with age, but they failed to nullify several deep balls that should have, at the very least, been deflected. No. 72, freshman Paul James, shows promise but there’s not enough edge pressure to hurry rival passers.
We were reminded of the absence of top tight ends Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse when sophomore Tyler White failed to handle consecutive passes by Lunt before halftime.
Bailey completed 9 of 13 short throws for the losers but gets an incomplete grade here because the Blues weren’t allowed to tackle him, and he was whistled down (by touch) on running plays when he would certainly have broken tackles for more yardage.
But the rest of today’s article is about an overachiever. We love those guys, don’t we.
Steve Hull was it in 2013 with 993 yards in receptions after shoulder problems forced his move from safety. On Saturday, the new Hull was Bonahoom, a fourth-year junior who made two catches in the opening Blue TD march, and later made consecutive receptions of 27 and 20 after halftime.
If you think he’s a one-time flash, consider that Beckman recognized his work ethic earlier and rewarded him with a battlefield commission — a scholarship — this semester.
“We had a scholarship come open,” Beckman said, “and I like to reward people who work hard. He earned it.”
To which Bonahoom responded: “I’m just trying to do my best every single time. I didn’t come out here today to show myself to people who don’t know me, I just saw this as another opportunity to get better.”
Cubit would like to alternate six receivers at three positions. Bonahoom had been listed behind senior Martize Barr and freshman Mike Dudek (withheld Saturday) at slot but must now be considered in the mix. A four-year football letterman at suburban Prospect, he once rushed for 353 yards in a game. He credits former prep teammate Miles Osei for encouraging him to attend the UI.
“I had offers from Eastern Illinois, Illinois State and Indiana State but I grew up with Miles, and he told me that I could play here. He said don’t settle for something less.
“I respect what Steve Hull did. I had people tell me he’d never play again after those shoulder injuries, but he keeps coming back. No one thought he’d come within 7 yards of 1,000 last year.”
Reflecting on his journey here, Bonahoom said:
“It is weird looking into the wide receiver room and seeing that it’s me, Kenny Knight (Toledo) and Jeremey Whitlow (Cleveland) that I came in with, and we’re the oldest except for Martize Barr, who has only been here a year. It’s strange being a leader, but I like it.”
For all the talk about Lunt and juco receiver Geronimo Allison (he had a good day with five catches), there seemed to be a special connection between O’Toole and Bonahoom on Saturday. They were reading each other’s mind.
“Sometimes I’d look up at the matchups and signal to him,” Bonahoom said, “and it happened to work out.”
It’s great when it happens. Here’s a young man with baseball skills who settled on a much more physical sport, who thought for a time of becoming a sports agent but now wants to coach football. He won’t be getting any NFL offers and, to be honest, he’ll have a tough time beating out the more skilled Dudek. But Cubit uses a lot of receivers, and Bonahoom has demonstrated that he can be counted on.
As a bonus, he is loving the college experience and, as far as I can tell, isn’t interested in starting a player’s union.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.