CHAMPAIGN They made the trip to Berkeley, Calif., but you might not have noticed.
It´s not your fault. Your eyes were preoccupied; Kurt Kittner was hitting Brandon Lloyd with all those passes. The Illini were rolling up all those points.
On Saturday, though, it was a little harder to miss the Illinois defenders.
"The offense was so good at Cal that even though we held them to 17 points, it wasn´t really a big deal," linebacker Jerry Schumacher said after the Illini´s 17-12 win against Northern Illinois. "Today, we put the game in our hands, and we proved we can come through when the game is in our hands."
Not that the UI always was entirely sure-handed.
For the second straight week, the Illini looked porous against the run, an area coach Ron Turner cited as a problem after the Huskies racked up 214 yards on the ground. And though the secondary mostly was sharp, a blown coverage surrendered a late touchdown pass that made the game interesting.
"Deep down," defensive end Mike O´Brien said, "I´m a little disappointed."
Northern Illinois had 373 yards of offense, 30 more than the Illini. But Illinois held the Huskies out of the end zone until just more than a minute remained in the game, thanks in part to its ability to force turnovers. A week after forcing five turnovers, Illinois had two takeaways against the Huskies.
That performance couldn´t have been more timely, coming on an afternoon in which the UI offense, despite no turnovers and a spectacular showing from Lloyd, was limited to six points through three quarters.
"I think with the offense struggling the way they were, it really put a lot of weight on the defense, and we showed up," cornerback Eugene Wilson said. "We came out here, and we took it upon ourselves to make the plays and put the offense in good position."
Wilson intercepted two passes, and the Illini deflected 16 more, including six by Bobby Jackson and three by Wilson.
"In recent years, the offense knew they had to score," Schumacher said. "We want them to know they can count on us. We proved today that we can do our thing, and we know they´re going to do their thing. Together, we can´t be stopped."
Running on empty.
After two games last season, Antoineo Harris and Rocky Harvey had combined for 481 yards. Each tailback surpassed 100 yards against Middle Tennessee and San Diego State, the first time in school history two Illini did so in consecutive games.
Their pace has slowed considerably.
After two games this season, Harris and Harvey have teamed to rush for 159 yards. Harris had a team-high 65 against Cal, and Harvey led the way Saturday with 47.
Illinois is averaging 2.5 yards a carry.
"It´s frustrating to all running backs because everybody wants to rush for 100 yards. But you´re not going to do it every time," Harvey said. "If this was my freshman year, I probably would be pretty shaken up right now. But my coaches have taught me to wait it out and good things will happen."
Turner is confident the running game will pick up speed once Harris or Harvey breaks into the secondary. The UI´s longest run of the season was Harris´ 19-yard dash against Cal.
"I´m concerned about it. We have to run the football to win," Turner said. "We didn´t do it as well today as we would like, or last week for that matter. It´s an area of concern. We have to look at it very closely and see what we have to do."
Illinois showed improvement on its final scoring drive. Harris and Harvey rushed eight times for 33 yards before Kittner passed to Carey Davis for a 2-yard touchdown.
"We did nothing fancy," said Turner, whose team has gone five games without a 100-yard rusher. "We lined up two tight ends and pounded the ball right at them."
Said Harvey: "We can´t afford to keep going like we´ve been. We turned it up a little toward the end. Now we have to do it the whole game."
Anthony Mc-Clellan has been pleasantly surprised by his contributions as a redshirt freshman tight end.
His parents, Anthony and Cassandra, are even happier.
"Now that I´m playing, they´re enjoying the games a lot more," McClellan said. "Last year, they came to all the home games, but all I´d do is sit there."
McClellan made his first career reception against NIU, finishing with two catches for 54 yards. The O´Fallon product, a News-Gazette All-State Special Mention pick in 1999, is rotating with starter Brian Hodges. McClellan is the only tight end with a reception this season.
"I´m surprised I´ve been able to contribute some big plays," McClellan said. "I wasn´t expecting to be playing so much this early."
Hodges is a senior. McClellan has played two games at the UI.
"(Hodges) deserves to be starting," McClellan said. "He´s been here four years, doing it day in and day out."
Despite its strong showing, the UI defense might be hanging its head if not for Terrell Washington´s hands.
The senior defensive end had three tackles, including one behind the line of scrimmage, but he made his most significant impact on special teams. Washington blocked two NIU field goal attempts in the first quarter, plays that loomed large by the final buzzer.
"I would have never thought that," Washington said. "I mean, we knew that Northern Illinois would come in here and play hard, but I didn´t expect it to be so close that those blocks would be so important. If it hadn´t been for those, it could have been 18-17. They turned out to be pretty key plays."
Washington acknowledged after batting away Northern´s first field goal attempt, he got greedy for the second.
"My motor just got going, thinking I could get another one," he said. "That second one hit off my forearm. I didn´t know I had gotten up that high."
Green thumbs up.
Count Schumacher among the fans of Illinois´ new AstroPlay surface. The artificial turf, which has a look and feel more similar to grass than traditional Astro-Turf, wasn´t perfect, but it was an improvement, Schumacher said.
"It played really well, about like we expected it to," he said. "It was hot down on the field but not as hot as last year´s turf. That stuff was seriously hot."
But the new playing surface has its drawbacks, including one that figures to improve with time. For now, the bottom layer of the surface, a grainy, almost-tarlike black substance, pushes its way to the top when the upper layers are mashed by the wear and tear of a game.
"That´s a part of it, until it gets worn down," Schumacher said. "Today, those little beads were everywhere."
Show them the money.
Northern Illinois received a nice chunk of change to play Illinois on Saturday afternoon.
According to assistant athletic director Robert Collins, the school received about $300,000 to make the trip this weekend to Champaign. Collins said that is the standard payout when Northern has played Big Ten schools in the past. It will be in that same neighborhood next week, when it travels to Wake Forest.
Northern has received as much as $500,000 to play teams like Florida on the road.
"Most of it is negotiated," Collins said. "But we have good relationships with these schools."
What about us?
An NIU upset Saturday not only would have been huge for the school, but for the MAC.
The conference recently was awarded its second automatic bowl bid. It´s a stride toward acceptance, but to break the label of being a second-tier conference its teams must continue to pull off big victories. Last week, MAC team Toledo rolled past Minnesota, and Bowling Green opened by beating Missouri.
"We think our league is pretty good," Huskies coach Joe Novak said. "The way we´re going to get more respect is to win games like this. We´re going to need to win some like these and others in the conference, too."
Marshall has been the conference´s star the past few seasons, but Western Michigan and Toledo are fielding competitive teams, and Northern could be the next to follow.
They´re good, too.
Illini fans consider Harvey and Harris one of the best running back combinations in the country, but they might not be the best in the state.
Northern´s Thomas Ham-mock and Michael Turner showed Illinois fans they can run, too. The 5-foot-8, 214-pound junior Hammock rushed for 111 yards on 23 carries Saturday. Turner (5-10, 217), a sophomore, had 73 yards on 14 carries.
"They run hard," Schumacher said. "When they get going, they can take it. That´s a good duo."
Northern´s combo doubled the output of Harvey and Harris but had nothing to show for it.
"We try to keep each other up out there," said Hammock, who surpassed the 100-yard mark for the eighth time in his college career. "I´m not about making statements, I´m about winning. I ain´t into moral victories, to be honest. I´m into winning. It hurts."
For the second consecutive game, Illinois made it through without major injuries.
The team had a scare late in the first half, when safety Bobby Jackson took a hard fall after deflecting a pass. Jackson stayed on the turf for a few minutes before leaving the field.
"I was just doing self- diagnostics," Jackson said. "It just seemed like the right thing to do: Check everything out before you get up real fast because it was a hard hit."
Wilson and Lloyd each slightly hurt a knee, but neither injury was considered serious.
Linebacker Ty Myers stayed on the sidelines the entire game with a sprained ankle. Turner expects Myers back next Saturday against Louisville.
Former Illinois coach Lou Tepper´s Edinboro team reached .500 with a 37-21 win Saturday against rival Gannon. Tepper´s team scored 23 points in the second quarter to take the lead and 14 points in the fourth to seal the victory.