Tate: Illini must improve
Deepening Illinois clouds parted to allow a bright fourth quarter Saturday.
Wes Lunt fired three last-period TD passes and the Illini survived Youngstown State’s upset bid, 28-17, in the season opener.
Nothing seemed right up to then. It was strange watching the Illinni break tradition with white helmets. They looked like somebody else’s team. And the announced attendance of 36,234 (sold), lowest since 2006, was more than 10,000 above the actual turnout. Not even half of the sold-out horseshoe seats were filled, and little more than half of the north student section.
The dreary Illini start had everyone mulling negative thoughts. Looking ahead, this level of performance won’t do in Big Ten play. In fact, this won’t cut it next Saturday when Western Kentucky brings in an aerial circus that felled Mid-America champion Bowling Green 59-31 with 569 yards stemming from Brandon Doughty’s arm.
Coach Tim Beckman, who had used a noisy dragster tape to emphasize the need for a fast start, looked up after 45 minutes to see Illinois trailing 15-6 in first downs, 178-42 in rushing yards and 9-7 in points.
In those 45 minutes, YSU hogged the ball. The Illini provided the home fans with little more than a minute of satisfaction when V’Angelo Bentley returned a kickoff 67 yards and tight end Jon Davis slipped into the end zone for an 8-yard TD catch.
It was up to Wes Lunt to take over the game, and he did. His last-quarter passing statistics show 9-for-11 for 155 yards and three scores to Mike Dudek, Josh Ferguson and Martize Barr. His four TD passes were the most by a first-game UI quarterback.
“This was not a pretty win,” acknowledged Beckman. “The first three quarters were not what we wanted them to be. But I’m going to look at this game in a positive manner because of the way we fought and the way we responded. The sideline was alive throughout. Wes was more comfortable as he went along, and we got such big plays from Joe Futo and the receivers.”
Futo, a JC transfer, switched position because two ends were absent, Kenny Nelson (injured) and Paul James (disciplined). Futo didn’t get credit for blocking a punt, but he pushed a Penguin blocker into YSU’s Joey Cejudo on an option run-or-punt play near midfield at the end of the third quarter. This was a turning point, as were several crucial third-down completions later. For the game, Illinois converted 8 of 15 third-down plays, while YSU managed just 5 of 19.
Coordinator Bill Cubit said the UI’s ground attack was blunted in part because YSU brought an extra defender into the box. But that doesn’t excuse the offensive line’s weak effort in clearing the way for just 78 yards on 22 UI rushes. On the other hand, Lunt received good protection in completing 24 of 38 passes, and had just one negative yard when his fourth-quarter fumble was recovered by guard Ted Karras.
“In the beginning, it was a worst case scenario,” said Cubit. “We couldn’t run and we were out of sync with our passing game. We seemed to do something wrong on every possession ... a dropped pass, a penalty, a blown assignment, always something.”
Not typical freshman
Two freshman receivers, who have sparkled throughout camp, stepped up when it counted ... a positive sign for the future. These two appear to be the real deal.
Dudek put the Illini up 14-9 with an 8-yard TD catch and, when YSU countered for their only TD -- set up by a 61-yard screen breakaway -- Dudek nabbed a 49-yard bomb ahead of Ferguson’s 15-yard TD catch. And Turner had a clutch third-down grab of 20 yards prior to Barr’s 29-yard TD catch.
Dudek and Turner have a knack for getting open. They hauled in seven passes for 103 yards. And they weren’t even in the game at the outset.
“There is a danger of playing young guys too early,” said Cubit. “You don’t want to destroy their confidence. Dudek had a drop on the goal line (it was defended) but he bounced right back in the fourth quarter. Those two learned a lot, and they’re better football players right now than they were before the game.”
Still can improve
Defensively, the jury is out. YSU, with a new quarterback and a revamped line, pounded the Illini for 203 yards on the ground and sprang two big plays (54 and 61 yards) on dump passes. The Penguins also had a TD recalled before halftime because of an ineligible lineman downfield.
UI linebacker Mason Monheim was in on 14 tackles (12 were assists) but dropped an easy interception, offsetting a similar drop by YSU’s Jameel Smith in the first quarter.
Nutshelling: If you were looking for something more promising, remember: (1) Openers can be misleading and (2) it’s a W, and that’s all that will matter two months from now. The story is just starting to unfold.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com