Illini fans are looking for two things in early season games against opponents. First and foremost, a win. As we reported previously, it costs big money to bring in a non-conference opponent that is perceived to be a near-certain victory. In this respect, the DIA got what they paid for, and a little bit more. Illinois won comfortably (33–15), so much so that we got an opportunity to see some players further down the depth chart, such as backup quarterbacks Miles Osei and Reilly O’Toole, as well as backup running back Donovon Young, all of whom showed promise in short but uneven stints of playing time.
The other thing that fans are looking for is not just that the team won, but that the team won in a fashion to reassure that they could beat stronger teams. You know, like a Big Ten team or something. In my view, the fans got what they were looking for on the second criteria as well.
Granted, the performance was at times uneven. Jason Ford started the running game with astounding dominance, dragging tacklers to solid gains, before hitting some flat spots (usually by trying too many cuts), but eventually got into a groove. The same could be said for Scheelhaase in his debut performance of his sophomore year. At times he tried to do too much and held on to the ball too long, and then sometimes tried to do even more by attempting a run late into a broken play, rather than getting rid of the ball. But he showed great fire. In the second quarter, Arkansas State took a brief lead over Illinois after recording a safety and 2 field goals to Illinois’ 7. And the offense came alive, showing an ability to perform in exactly the way we’d been hoping throughout the offseason. Scheelhaase and A.J. Jenkins hooked up on consecutive first down passes of 14 and 16 yards. And then, Darius Millines broke out of the arms of a defender exactly as he made a catch, sprinting to the end zone for a total gain of 45 yards while showing good speed and great agility, scribing a perfect angle to stay in bounds and avoid the pursuing tacklers. And that was it. 5 plays. 80 yards. One minute and 26 seconds. Illinois was back on top, and the game was never contested again.
The very next play was an interception of an Arkansas State pass, setting up another scoring drive for Illinois. Things got semi-absurd (as college football is wont to do) when Arkansas State’s coach (whose last name is “Freeze”) attempted to “ice the kicker” by calling a timeout with sixteen seconds left in the half. It was a 32 yard kick, so maybe he thought that was some kind of freezing-point omen. And then he did it again. And, what the hell, let’s go for one more: three consecutive timeouts to attempt to make an excellent placekicker overthink a chip shot field goal to extend an already decent lead going into halftime. Let me put my opinion on the record right here. Icing the kicker is idiotic and pointless. There I said it. But you can’t knock Freeze for playing to win.
In the second half Illinois showed off the deep threat as AJ Jenkins took a gem of a pass dropped over his shoulder down the sidelines for a 72 yard score in the second play from scrimmage in the second half.
The defense looked good as well, and I think many questions were favorably answered on that side of the ball. Sure, they gave up some plays, but Arkansas State was a rather good team, all things considered, and their offensive threat was especially strong. The Illini D got their feet under them and eventually were able to control the Red Wolves in sufficiently convincing fashion for a first outing.
Illinois has another home opponent next week, when it faces off with South Dakota State at 11:00 a.m. This will be the last tuneup before the faceoff with Arizona State, which may be the first big hurdle for the Illini, so it is definitely one to parse closely. Big Ten Network is your choice for remote viewing of the Jackrabbits (I know — awesome mascot) of South Dakota State. Check back later this week and we’ll preview that game for you.
Photos by T. McDade