'We've got momentum. That's definitely a confidence booster.'

'We've got momentum. That's definitely a confidence booster.'

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois has 14 Florida natives on its roster. Most of them hail from the Miami area, but Tre Watson, Jake Hansen and Bobby Roundtree are all from Tampa or nearby towns — directly in the path of Hurricane Irma.

"I call my mom every day and check on her," Roundtree said. "I talked to my mom before the game, and she said she'll be safe. They're at a shelter right now and everyone should be safe."

Illinois coach Love Smith also has a home in Tampa from his time coaching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before he got the Illini job. Safeties coach Donnie Abraham, who spent last year coaching at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., 45 miles south of Tampa, also has family still in the area. His son, Devin, plays for South Florida — Illinois' scheduled opponent this coming week.

Even with some of their thoughts back home, football was the focus for the 3 hours and 26 minutes it took to beat Western Kentucky 20-7 on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.

"My family keeps saying they're safe and don't worry about us and go out and do what you can," Roundtree said.

"We're going to pray and hope and do whatever we can before and after the game, but in that time it's about football," Smith added. "You have to be able to lock in and concentrate on the game during that time."

That changed, though, as soon as the Illini wrapped up their victory.

"Right now our thoughts are with the people we know down in Tampa," Smith continued after the game. "We just hope that everything is OK."

***

Illinois' offense struggled in the first half to the tune of five punts and a pair of field goals from Chase McLaughlin. But that changed in the opening drive of the second half, as the Illini reeled off a 15-play drive that last just more than 8 minutes.

"The big thing for us was coming out of the locker room hot," Illinois quarterback Chance Crouch said. "We wanted to come out and make a statement with that drive, and that's what we did."

That type of methodical drive is what Smith wants from his offense. The Illini ran the ball nine times — including Crouch's 9-yard touchdown — and the redshirt junior also completed 5 of 6 passes.

"That's what our offense is capable of doing throughout. Take away that turnover there late (a Crouch interception in the fourth quarter), and that's the type of ball we want to play."

***

One of Illinois' preseason goals — a 3-0 nonconference record — is still on the table after the win against Western Kentucky. Simply starting the season 2-0, though, is something that has now happened just eight times in the last two decades.

"It definitely means a lot," Crouch said. "We've got momentum, we know we can win and we know we can play a lot better. That's definitely a confidence booster."

***

Several records were set Saturday night in terms of the number of true freshmen starting for the Illini. Not counting punter Blake Hayes, Illinois' seven freshmen starters were the most in program history.

Freshmen Larry Boyd and Alex Palczewski were the first pair of offensive linemen to start ever, while defensive ends Isaiah Gay and Bobby Roundtree were the first since 1980.

"It just means we came in looking for spots," Gay said. "We came in hungry. We came in not looking to ride the bench. We came in to play a part on the team. Me and Bobby, we've been competing since day one coming in with the freshman class. We go off each other."

***

Hayes, though, has a special distinction among the Illini freshmen. Really, the team at large.

"He's enjoying his first taste of American football," Smith said of the Australian native. "Just think, the guy's never lost a football game in his life. Think about that."

***

Freshman cornerback Nate Hobbs ended up at Illinois after initially committing to Western Kentucky. He flipped to the Illini after former Hilltoppers coach Jeff Brohm left for Purdue.

"I knew a lot of other players on the other side," Hobbs said. "(The win) was sweet, but I've got respect for everybody on the other side. After the game I went up to everybody and gave them dap."

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Chi Illini wrote on September 10, 2017 at 10:09 am

Ugh. Decent story but the their vs they're mistake in the Roundtree quote is pretty bad...