Final word: Illinois 'really getting started'

Final word: Illinois 'really getting started'

CHAMPAIGN — The opener didn’t go quite the way Lovie Smith expected. But the bottom line, the Illinois coach said, was his team picked up a win against Kent State.

“The plan was to come back (undefeated),” Smith said at Friday’s Illini Quarterback Club luncheon. “Of course, we didn’t start the way we wanted. But it’s about the finish. It’s always about the finish. I’m really pumped up about how our young team fought through adversity.”

On a rainy Friday, the crowd of 150 at Champaign’s Hawthorn Suites heard from the head coach, offensive coordinator Rod Smith, place kicker Chase McLaughlin, former Ilini safety Kevin Mitchell and director of compliance Tessi Taylor.

Lovie Smith introduced “a cousin of mine from back home, Rod Smith.”

They are not related.

“After working with him through spring ball and training camp, I could not be more pleased with where we are,” Lovie Smith said.

The Illini scored 28 points in the second half against the Golden Flashes.

“I feel like we’re really getting started,” Lovie Smith said.

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Illinois piled up 469 yards in Rod Smith’s first game in charge at Illinois. The team scored just three points in the opening half.

“I told our offense I don’t ever want to see a first half like that again,” Rod Smith said. “Sorry for the slow start. We weren’t very good fundamental-wise anywhere: Quarterback play, offensive line play, the wideouts.

“I knew it was fixable. Our guys had to settle down.”

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Playing Western Illinois at night didn’t alter Illinois’ schedule during the week. The team followed its typical Friday routine, having dinner at the Champaign Country Club before spending the night at Hyatt Place in downtown Champaign.

One minor change: The later kickoff allows the players to relax during the day before reporting to Memorial Stadium.

“There are some games that come early on,” Smith said. “We start normally about five hours before the game. That’s when we get into our game routine.”

Lovie Smith likes night games. Mostly. He appreciates the daylong buildup.

“On the other end is where you lose,” Smith said. “Now, you’re not going to get out until late (Saturday), so you’re behind a little bit as far as preparation for the next week.

“College guys just got out of high school. Friday Night Lights, they’re used to playing then.”

The Illini have at least one more night game. Kickoff for the Big Ten opener against Penn State is 8 p.m. on Sept. 21 at Memorial Stadium.

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Lovie Smith said there is no danger of Illinois overlooking its in-state FCS opponent.

“No, no, no,” Smith said. “We don’t take any opponent lightly. We have a worthy opponent on the other side that is going to come in fired up. We have to play our best ball. It’s always about us, no matter whether we have a No. 1 team coming in here or an FCS team, it’s about us. Starting and finishing the game, that’s our focus of course this week.”

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Mikey Dudek will miss the game — and the rest of the season — with a knee injury. Is anybody else sidelined?

“Nothing that we’re going to talk about,” the head coach said. “Injury-wise, we’re getting better.” 

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First-year Western Illinois coach Jared Elliott didn’t have to travel very far after he took the job. Elliott was already with the program.

When Charlie Fisher left to join the Arizona State staff, Elliott was promoted from offensive coordinator. He is thrilled to take over the Leathernecks.

“It feels good,” the 32-year-old said. “Like most guys that get in this profession, you work hard and you hope you get an opportunity. I was very fortunate that I did and had people believe in me. It’s an opportunity I don’t take lightly. I’m having a lot of fun with it and I’ve got great people around me. That makes the job so much easier. It’s not about me, it’s about us.” 

The transition was smooth. He didn’t need directions to the stadium or a tour of Hanson Field.

“Whenever you’ve got a familiarity with not only the program, but the athletic department and the university that makes it so much more seamless,” Elliott said.

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Elliott played quarterback and receiver at Miami (Ohio). In Oxford, he was recruited by the late Terry Hoeppner, whom he considers his coaching mentor.

“Terry was a major influence on my life,” Elliott said. “Unbelievable man. There’s always that guy that sparks you to want to get into coaching and Terry was that way for me.”

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Elliott’s first game as a head coach was a heartbreaking 26-23 loss at Montana State.

The Leathernecks outgained the host Bobcats and held the ball 13 more minutes.

Montana State kicked the winning field goal in the final minutes. It was the only time it led.

“Week 1, no matter who you’re playing or what level of football it is, you’re going to learn a lot about your team,” Elliott said. “Your team is going to learn a lot of things.

“I was really proud of our kids’ effort. We did some really good things. There’s a lot of positives.”

Elliott already knew he had a special running back in Steve McShane, who scored all three Western Illinois touchdowns.

"He's a very gifted athlete, Elliott said.

Besides his work with football, McShane is a top player on the Western Illinois baseball team.

"To play two sports in college and play them well is key," Elliott said. "It takes a lot of time management and balance."

Leathernecks quarterback Sean McGuire threw for 164 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted twice.

"There's no question Sean is the Alpha Dog leader of our football team," Elliott said. "He's one of the most special young men I've ever had the chance to work with. He's so unique in his approach to the game, his approach to his preparation. He's got off-the-charts intangibles.

"We've got a lot of young pieces around him but he's embraced an influential role."

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The Western Illinois travel party took busses Friday afternoon on the 140-mile trip from Macomb to Champaign. The team briefly stopped at Memorial Stadium.

Elliott is making his first trip to the home of Red Grange and Dick Butkus.

"I'm looking forward to it," Elliott said.

The Western Illinois roster includes more than 40 players from the state.

"These guys grew up either watching Fighting Illini football or they're at least very familiar with it," Elliott said. "It's a great opportunity for our guys."

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Elliott was hoping his team would be able to play against Dudek.

"My heart broke for that young man," Elliott said. "He's a model example of what we all want as a student-athlete."Bob Asmussen