A mediocre crowd gathered yesterday in Champaign to watch the Illini season opener in 100 degree temperatures. The Illini got off to a strong start, but nearly gave away the game in the fourth quarter. Thankfully they held on tight, and managed to beat Southern Illinois 42-34.
Let’s start out with the most exciting part of the game: the gorgeous new scoreboard. Sure, it pooped out for about 20 minutes, but when the scoreboard was working it was a thing of beauty. And the sound the came out of it kept the stadium a’rocking. It was well worth the money, and the sleek scoreboard also looked beautiful on the backside, with the orange letters of Memorial Stadium big and bright for all to see.
Also, on the west side of the stadium, there are now bold letters highlighting both the Big Ten and National Championships that the Illini have earned over the years. Illinois is known for basketball, but there have been some exciting football seasons instead, with the most recent marked with a Big Ten Championship and Sugar Bowl trip in 2001.
The fact that the University is putting more money into the football program says that they’re serious, and maybe recruits will stand up and take notice. It seemed to work for basketball recruit Leron Black.
Okay, so the actual game, there isn’t quite as much to talk about.
Up 42-24 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, I was ready to pack up my sweaty self and head for the shade. Nathan Scheelhaase was running an offense that looked to be working, and sophomore Josh Ferguson was making his presence known. We had TDs from Ferguson, RB Donovonn Young, and TE Jon Davis in the first half.
In the third quarter, V’angelo Bentley tied the school record for the longest kickoff return with a 100-yard return resulting in a TD, and new QB freshman phenom Aaron Bailey logged his first Illini TD with a 2-yard rush. We were in great shape, and then coach decided to put in Reilley O’Toole and everything went downhill.
SIU managed to score 10 points, putting them right in the mix with the score at 42-34 with 5 minutes left. Luckily, Illinois held on to the lead, but I’ve lost confidence in them, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t lose confidence in themselves. On the plus side, a win is certainly a win, and the final score wasn’t as close as it felt. Scheelhaase had a career-high 416 passing yards, and the offensive and defensive line looked better, but on the rushing side there were some problems.
Other problems include our safeties being young and less effective, we’re still dropping a lot of passes, and the coaching staff getting a sideline interference penalty is completely unnecessary. Another consideration is that the opponent in this barely convincing win was a Division 1 FCS school. There were actually a number of DI teams that lost to FCS teams yesterday, and thankfully Illinois wasn’t one of them. It’s going to be interesting (frightening) to see what happens when a much more talented Cincinnati comes to town next week.
Scoreboard grade: AIllini grade: B-