Halfway through their season, people wanted to know where this Illinois team stood. Three losses came to teams with a combined 19-1 record. Three wins came to an FCS (Former Division I-AA) school, a MAC school, and a struggling Penn State team.
After a 43-13 Homecoming victory over Indiana, we have a much better idea.
Yes, it was “only Indiana”, but this isn’t your father’s Hoosier team. It’s a high-powered offense which got flattened by the Illini. Sure, they ran up 388 total yards, 279 through the air. But they also threw four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, lost a fumble and had two punts blocked, one of which resulted in a safety.
They had two trips into the red zone, both of which ended with field goals. One possession had seven consectutive plays in the red zone stuffed by the Illini defense.
Nathan Scheelhaase continued his fantastic freshman season with a 123-yard, two-touchdown performance. He also had 6 rushes for 45 yards. The numbers may not be impressive, but minus a third-quarter fumble, he played a mistake-free game. The Illini are 4-0 when Scheelhaase does not throw an interception. His touchdown passes were a 29-yard strike to Evan Wilson and a 17-yard catch-and-run by Jarrod Fayson.
Mikel Leshoure ran for 77 yards and a late-game touchdown. Derek Dimke hit two field goals, and had another called back by a holding penalty.
But the day belonged to the defense from the beginning. Tavon Wilson intercepted Ben Chappell on the first possession of the game. Wilson would’ve scored a touchdown, if he hadn’t stepped out of bounds. Patrick Nixon-Youman returned his interception for a touchdown, and Terry Hawthorne had a pick. Jonathan Brown intercepted Derek Kiel late in the game and scored a touchdown.
The special teams had two blocks. Martez Wilson blocked a Chris Hagerup punt in the third quarter. Then after the Scheelhaase fumble, Nate Bussey blocked another punt, which led to an Illini safety. Actually, Bussey didn’t block the punt. He made Hagerup look like Charlie Brown, knocking away the drop.
So, where does this leave Illinois? At 4-3 overall, they are two wins away from securing a bowl trip. With next week’s home game against Purdue, and a November 13 home date with Minnesota should fulfill that requirement. If they stumble a December 3 trip to Fresno should also be a win.
How they perform in Ann Arbor and Evanston might determine if they are visiting Detroit in December or South Florida in January.