Football
Game 1: #19/20 Illinois vs. #6/7 Missouri at St. Louis

 
Coach Ron Zook and the Fighting Illini will take the field in the Edward Jones Dome at St. Louis Saturday night against Missouri in the 2008 season opener.
Coach Ron Zook and the Fighting Illini will take the field in the Edward Jones Dome at St. Louis Saturday night against Missouri in the 2008 season opener.
 

Aug. 25, 2008



FOR OPENERS
  • Illinois opens its 119th season of varsity football Saturday against Missouri.
  • The Illini have compiled an all-time record of 74-39-5 in season openers, are 23-8-1 when opening the season on the road and 0-4 in neutral-site season openers.
  • Illinois returns 13 starters from a year ago, six on each side of the ball and one specialist.
  • The Illini return to St. Louis, bringing with them four natives of the area in Jerry Brown (Vashon), London Davis (Cahokia), Jason Ford (Belleville Althoff) and Antonio Gully (Cardinal Ritter).
  • Illinois looks to defend its back-to-back Big Ten rushing titles as five of the top six rushers from a year ago return. The Illini will have a big hole to fill as single-season rushing leader Rashard Mendenhall (129.3 ypg) is now with the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers, but quarterback Juice Williams (58.1 ypg) and last year's backup Daniel Dufrene (22.6 ypg) return. Williams broke the school record for rushing yards by a quarterback for the second consecutive year and Dufrene averaged an impressive 6.3 yards per carry, including a 100-yard game in the upset of No. 1 Ohio State. Added into the mix at running back will be redshirt freshman Troy Pollard and true freshmen Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure.
  • Last season, Illinois played the 42nd toughest schedule according to the final Sagarin ratings. This season doesn't offer any relief as the Illini prepare for six teams on the schedule that went to a bowl game last season. Also among those are three teams ranked in the top-15 -- No. 2 Ohio State, No. 6 Missouri and No. 13 Wisconsin, as well as No. 22 Penn State.


RECORDS TO WATCH

  • Junior quarterback Juice Williams needs 295 total yards to pass Jeff George and move into seventh place on the Illinois career total offensive yardage list.
  • Williams needs 211 rushing yards to move into the top-20 of the the Illini career rushing list.
  • Williams already holds the career record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 1,331 in his first two seasons.
  • Senior defensive end Will Davis needs half a sack to crack the top-10 of the career quarterback sacks list.


HIGHLIGHTS VS. MISSOURI

  • Illinois piled up 435 yards of offense and nearly came back from a 24-point second half deficit last season against the Tigers.
  • Vontae Davis blocked a punt and returned it for a TD in the first quarter of last year's Arch Rivalry game.
  • After Juice Williams left the game in the second quarter with an injury, back-up quarterback Eddie McGee passed for 257 yards and a TD to spark the Illini comeback.
  • Running back Daniel Dufrene and wide receiver Arrelious Benn both had impressive Illinois debuts against Mizzou last season. Dufrene ran for 58 yards on only six carries and Been had five catches for a team-high 74 yards against the Tigers.


ILLINI IN DOMES

After a two-year drought of playing games in domes, Illinois played three games indoors last season, going 2-1. The Fighting Illini fell to Mizzou 40-34 in the season opener at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis before breaking an eight game dome losing streak with a 41-20 win over Syracuse at the Carrier Dome on Sept. 15. Illinois then added a 44-17 victory over Minnesota at the Metrodome late in the season. This year, Illinois is slated for two games in domes ­- the Edward Jones Dome, where the Illini are 0-3 all-time, for the season opener against Missouri and Ford Field for the Nov. 8 matchup with Western Michigan.


ILLINI UP FOR NATIONAL AWARDS

Eight Illini football players have been named to preseason watch lists for national awards:

  • Vontae Davis - Thorpe, Nagurski, Bednarik: Davis was the only sophomore on the the semifinal list of last year's Jim Thorpe Award. He recorded four interceptions and eight additional passes defended, which ranked sixth in the Big Ten in both categories. He was a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2007 and earlier this year was named to the Playboy All-America team.
  • Arrelious Benn - Biletnikoff, Maxwell, Walter Camp: Benn earned freshman All-America honors and was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2007. He broke Illinois' freshman receiving and receptions record, which was previously held by Brandon Lloyd. Also returned kicks in 2007 and will add punt returning to his repitoire.
  • Juice Williams - Davey O'Brien: Williams led the Illini to the 2008 Rose Bowl in just his sophomore year. He improved his passing accuracy from 39 to 57 percent in one season and led an offense that posted the best total offensive numbers in school history with 5,500 yards. He broke into the Illinois all-time rushing list with over 1,000 yards rushing, the first quarterback in school history to do so.
  • Will Davis - Hendricks, Lombardi: Davis was a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2007 after leading the team in tackles for loss with 12.5 and sacks with 9.5.
  • Ryan McDonald - Rimington: McDonald is a three-year starter for an offensive line that posted the best rushing and total offensve numbers in school history last year. He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. The line also set a school mark for fewest sacks allowed in a year with 1.23 per game. In his two years as starting center for the Illini, the offense has led the Big Ten in rushing.
  • Xavier Fulton - Lombardi: Fulton earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in his first year on the offensive line. He played a team-high 997 offensive snaps last year and led the team with 109 knockdowns. He was also instrumental in protecting QB Juice Williams and allowing only 1.23 sacks per game.
  • Martez Wilson - Butkus: Wilson has been added to the Butkus Watch List before even starting a game at Illinois. He athleticism has earned him the nickname of "Freak 2." He runs a 4.4 and is a gunner on the punt team at 246 pounds. He played in all 13 games last year and recorded 29 tackles, three for loss.
  • Brit Miller - Lott: Miller has moved to middle linebacker this year, a move geared toward maximizing his experience as a four-year starter, stability in play calling and leadership on the defense. His nomination for the Ronnie Lott award combines athletic excellence with off the field character. Miller is a staple in the Champaign and Decatur communities, volunteering an average of four hours per week with elementary and middle schools, military veterans and children's hospitals.


BIG TEN 1,000-YARD RUSHERS

Entering the 2008 season, the Big Ten boasts eight career 1,000 yard rushers. Illinois quarterback Juice Williams ranks sixth among active players and is tops among quarterbacks in the Big Ten. Indiana's Kellen Lewis is the only other signal-caller on the list.

  1. Tyrell Sutton, RB, Sr., Northwestern -- 2,996 yards
  2. P.J. Hill, RB, Jr., Wisconsin -- 2,805 yards
  3. Javon Ringer, RB, Sr., Michigan State -- 2,761 yards
  4. Kory Sheets, RB, Sr., Purdue -- 2,210 yards
  5. Beanie Wells, RB, Jr., Ohio State -- 2,185 yards
  6. Juice Williams, QB, Jr., Illinois -- 1,331 yards
  7. Jaycen Taylor, RB, Sr., Purdue -- 1,237 yards
  8. Kellen Lewis, QB, Jr., Indiana -- 1,177 yards
  9. Marcus Thigpen, RB, Sr., Indiana -- 990 yards


MISSOURI SERIES NOTES

  • Mizzou leads the all-time series 14-7 and has won all three games in the State Farm Arch Rivalry series played in St. Louis.
  • Missouri has won four of the last five games in the series and five of the last seven, dating back to the 1991 season.
  • Mizzou leads the series 4-1 in neutral-site games, all five being played in St. Louis. The Illini won the first game of the series, which was played in St. Louis, in 1896, but the Tigers took victories in 1969, 2002, 2003 and 2007.


ILLINI RECORDS IN SEASON OPENERS

  • Rushing Yards: 143 by Pierre Thomas vs. Florida A&M, 9/4/04
  • Passing Yards: 315 by Jack Trudeau vs. Northwestern, 9/1/84
  • Completions: 31 by Jon Beutjer vs. Missouri, 8/30/03
  • Touchdowns Rushing: 3 by Antoineo Harris vs. California, 9/1/01
  • Touchdowns Passing: 3, most recently by Kurt Kittner vs. Middle Tennessee, 9/2/00
  • Receptions: 11 by David Williams vs. Northwestern, 9/1/84
  • Touchdown Receptions: 3 by Greg Lewis vs. Middle Tennessee, 9/2/00
  • Receiving Yards: 208 by David Williams vs. Northwestern, 9/1/84
  • Sacks: 4 by Mike Poloskey vs. East Carolina, 8/31/91
  • Points Scored: 79 vs. Illinois State, 9/16/44
  • Margin of Victory: 73 (79-6) vs. Illinois State, 9/16/44


NATIONAL CONSECUTIVE STARTS

Illinois senior center Ryan McDonald has started 36 consecutive games during his four-year career. That number is among the best in the nation, ranking as the fourth-longest active streak. Below is the list of consecutive starts among FBS collegiate football players.

39 Cody Lubojasky, LB, Houston
Kraig Urbik, OL, Purdue
Andrew Hartline, OL, Central Michigan
Andrew Gardner, OL, Georgia Tech
38 Jason Phillips, LB, TCU
Dallas Reynolds, OL, BYU
Sean Sester, OL, Purdue
37 Kenneth Fontenette, S, Houston
Pat Brown, OL, UCF
Maurice Crum, LB, Notre Dame
Matt Kroul, DL, Iowa
Clint Sintim, LB, Virginia
36 Ryan McDonald, OL, Illinois
Robbie Felix, OL, UTEP
Jervonte Jackson, DL, Florida Atlantic
Dan Gerberry, OL, Ball State


Juice Williams returns for his third season as a starter at quarterback.


ALL JUICED UP

  • Junior quarterback Juice Williams made big strides between his freshman and sophomore seasons and similar improvement is anticipated for his third season. Williams increased his completion percentage by nearly 18 percentage points (39.5 to 57.3) from 2006 to 2007.
  • In the final four games of 2007, Williams averaged 203 yards passing per contest and threw seven touchdowns, while also rushing for 80 yards per game and scoring three touchdowns with his feet.
  • Entering his junior year, Williams already ranks eighth on Illinois' all-time passing yardage list with 3,232 yards. The next rung on the ladder is Jeff George's 5,189 yards from 1988-89. Williams will need 1,957 to move up a spot.
  • In his first season as a starter, Williams set school records for rushing yards by a quarterback in a season as well as in a career. In 2007, he surpasssed his own single-season numbers and hit the 1,000-yard career mark as a rusher. He currently ranks 23rd on Illinois' all-time rushing list, just 450 yards from breaking the top-15. For his career, he as compiled 1,331 yards on the ground with nine rushing TDs.
  • There is no doubt that Williams has matured from his sophomore year. He is not only being looked on to be one of the main leaders on this Illinois team, but he now has a daughter who also looks up to him. LaChez will turn one on Sept. 3. While some college athletes become parents during their college years, Williams has taken parenting one step further. He and his high school girlfriend, Chez, have decided to continue their full-time student schedules at Illinois, while raising LaChez. The trio lives together in Champaign year-round as one happy family.


POSITION CHANGES

Six of Illinois' projected starters came to Illinois on a different path than the one they currently find themselves. Wide receiver Chris Duvalt spent his first two seasons as an Illini at cornerback. He played a key role on special teams, but was spending too much time behind other players. This spring, he gave offense a try and the rest is history. He immediately made an impact in an offense where receivers are a valuable resource. Junior Rahkeem Smith played a season as a linebacker before seeing a straight shot to a starting role at fullback. Senior Will Davis came to Illinois as a 235-pound receiver, but quickly saw a chance at success on the defensive side of the ball with his addition of 40 pounds and a move to defensive end. One of the most immediately impacting moves came before the 2007 season when former defensive end Xavier Fulton switched to offensive tackle and earned All-Big Ten honors that same season. Jeff Cumberland moved from tight end to receiver in the middle of last season. As a receiver in his final four games, he caught 11 passes for 221 yards, including 131 yards against Northwestern.


DAVIS' FAMILY INSTRUMENTAL IN LIBERIAN GOVERNMENT

4 Illinois defensive end Will Davis' family are natives of the Republic of Liberia. He has spent his entire life in the United States, and was able to visit Liberia as a young child before Civil War broke out. Now that the war has ended, his mother, Pearine Davis-Parkinson, recently returned home to become the Deputy Minister in the Ministry of State office. The Ministry of State supports the work of the President of the Republic of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The major departments of the Ministry of State are the Office of the President, Administration, and Public Affairs and Communications Technology. Davis' mother played basketball for the Liberian national team and at the University of Liberia. His uncle, John Davis, played soccer for Liberia. She should be in town in the month of October to attend Illinois football games.


OFFENSIVE NOTES

  • Illinois led the Big Ten in rushing for the second consecutive season, ranking fifth in the nation last season with a 256 ypg average. That average ranked second on the Illinois season rushing list and is the highest since 1953. Illinois' 5.6 yard per carry average ranked fourth in the nation. Returning running backs Daniel Dufrene (6.3 ypc) and Troy Pollard (6.4 ypc) both averaged over six yards per carry, while quarterback Juice Williams averaged 4.6 yards per carry.
  • Sophomore wide receiver Arrelious Benn earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-America honors last season despite the fact that he was hampered by an injured shoulder for the entire season. Benn broke Illinois freshmen records with 54 receptions and 676 yards and also made his presence felt on special teams, returning a kickoff 90 yards for a TD against Penn State. After off-season surgery to fix the shoulder, Benn is back at 100 percent for his sophomore season.
  • Illinois returns three of five starters on the offensive line, including 2007 All-Big Ten selections Xavier Fulton at left tackle and Ryan McDonald at center, and left guard Jon Asamoah. Last season, the line set a school record for fewest sacks per game with 1.23 as well as posting the best numbers in total offense and rushing with 5,585 and 3,338 yards, respectively. For the second-straight year, the line blocked for the Big Ten's best rushing offense. The offensive line paved the way for Rashard Mendenhall to break eight individual records, including single-season rushing, season yards per carry, total touchdowns, rushing touchdowns and all-purpose yards.


Senior David Lindquist and his teammates on the defensive line hope to make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks this fall.


DEFENSIVE NOTES

  • The defensive line is considered the strength of the Fighting Illini defense by many. Even with the loss of senior Sirod Williams to a knee injury, Illinois will rotate as many as 10 linemen throughout games. Seniors Will Davis (41 tackles, 9.5 sacks), Derek Walker (22 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and David Lindquist (46 tackles, 4.5 sacks) lead the experienced bunch. In addition, juniors Doug Pilcher and Antonio James, sophomores Josh Brent, Jerry Brown and Clay Nurse, and freshman Corey Liuget all will see significant time this season.
  • Senior Brit Miller, who is a three-year starter at outside linebacker, moves to the middle this season with All-American J Leman gone to graduation and the NFL. A natural leader, Miller had 62 tackles and 8.5 TFLs last season.
  • Sophomore Martez Wilson and senior Rodney Pittman move into starting linebacker roles after the departures of leading tacklers J Leman and Antonio Steele from last season. Wilson was a freshman All-American in a back-up and special teams role last season. He had 29 tackles and two sacks on the year. Pittman had a big offseason and will move into the line-up for the first time this year as a senior.
  • There are several strong candidates to fill the void at both safety positions as last year's starters, Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison, both graduated. Sophomores Bo Flowers, Garrett Edwards and Nate Bussey all got vaulable experience last year and are in the mix. Sophomore Travon Bellamy is back after missing last year with an injury and junior college transfer Donsay Hardeman should make an impact right away.


SPECIAL TEAMS NOTES

  • Sophomore punter Anthony Santella is coming off a career-best performance at last year's Rose Bowl. Santella averaged 44.7 yards on six punts, including a long of 47 yards.
  • Junior cornerback Vontae Davis blocked two punts last season. He got a hand on a Missouri punt in the season-opener, recovered it and returned it two yards for a TD. Later in the season, he blocked a second punt against Indiana.
  • Sophomore Arrelious Benn returns for a second year as a kickoff returner. In his first year, he returned 10 kicks for a 28.0 average, which ranks third in the Illinois record books. His first collegiate return attempt came against Penn State for a 90-yard touchdown.
  • Illinois will feature an entirely new kicking battery as last year's snapper, Kyle Knezetic, holder, Frank Lenti, Jr., and kicker, Jason Reda, were all lost to graduation. Sophomore Tad Keely will take over long snapping duties and sophomore Jared Bosch will serve as the holder while freshman Derek Dimke, redshirt-freshman Matt Eller, sophomore Matt Brandabur, and junior Michael Cklamovski are in a heated battle for the place kicking duties.


HE'S A ROCKET SCIENTIST

Maybe you don't have to be a rocket scientist to play football, but Illinois senior center Ryan McDonald thinks it doesn't hurt. In four years, McDonald finished an undergraduate degree in aeronautical engineering with a 3.83 GPA. After completing a bachelor's degree and having one more year of eligibility remaining, McDonald begins a master's degree in the same program this fall. Illinois' College of Engineering is ranked among the top-5 in the nation, with some programs notching the top spot.


HOOMANAWANUI HONORING HIS POLYNESIAN DECENT

  • Junior tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, while growing up in Bloomington, Ill., lived much of the Hawaiian heritage passed down by his father, Isy. Isy came to the States to play football at Illinois State then stayed to raise his family.
  • When Michael came to Illinois he began many of the traditions carried on by Polynesian and Samoan football players. He entered his freshman year with clean-cut short hair, but then began to grow it out to the long black mane that can be seen out the backs of football helmets. This tradition dates back to Samoan warriors to signify battle. It also is very noticeable to the public in the stands and draws attention to their heritage.
  • Hoomanamwanui also got two tattoos, called Aumakua, which means "protectors." His family's protectors are the shark and the turtle, two images that have been passed down for centuries and are now tattoos on Michael's arms and shoulders.
  • Michael also can be seen on campus wearing what looks to be a brightly adorned skirt. However, it is called a kikepa and is traditional dress for men in Hawaii.


BO KNOWS FOOTBALL ... AND BASEBALL

Sophomore safety Bo Flowers turned 24 the day after Illinois' upset of Ohio State last season. He is the oldest player on the Illini roster. Flowers began his college career last season after four years in professional baseball. He was a fifth-round draft pick in 2003 by the Detroit Tigers. After spending three seasons in the Detroit organization, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs, where he played the 2006 season. Currently, Flowers is a walk-on on the Illini team because the Tigers are footing the college bill.


KEEPING UP WITH THE DAVISES

Illinois defenders Vontae and Will Davis (no relation) are two of the leaders on the Illinois defense. Vontae, a two-year starting cornerback, made a quick impact on the Illini program. He earned unanimous first-team Freshman All-America honors in 2006 and emerged as one of the best corners in the Big Ten last season, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. He had four interceptions and eight passes broken up, which ranked sixth and seventh in the conference, respectively. He also has blocked two punts on the year. Will, a senior defensive end, exploded last season with 9.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for lossr. He was named second team All-Big Ten and was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after his four-sack, five-TFL performance vs. Indiana.


AFRICAN AMERICANS

On this year's Illini football roster, there are five members who are direct descendents of Africa. Starting left guard Jon Asamoah's father, Samual Asamoah, is from Ghana in West Africa, while four others' parents are Nigerian. Freshmen Supo Sanni, Ugochukwu Uzodinma, Chudi Aguanunu and Wisdom Onyegbule's parents were born and raised in Nigeria, also in West Africa. Sanni's parens are Sesis and Olarunji Sanni, Uzodinma's parents are Florence and Joel Uzodinma, Aguanunu's parents are Chika and Kate Aguanunu, and Onyegbule's parents are Onyemuwa and Grace Onyegbule.

HEADLINES