Illini Hope For Big Things From Kittner In Season Opener Against Blue Raiders

Kittner and company look to open with a win on Saturday against the Blue Raiders.
Kittner and company look to open with a win on Saturday against the Blue Raiders.

Aug. 30, 2000

From Wire Reports

After a stunning resurgence last season, Kurt Kittner and Illinois try to vie for the Big Ten title in 2000 as their season opens against Middle Tennessee State.

The 21st-ranked Illini were miserable in their first two seasons under Ron Turner, going 3-19. But Kittner threw for 2,702 yards and a school-record 24 touchdowns while the tandem of halfbacks Rocky Harvey and Antoineo Harris spearheaded a ground assault that accumulated 2,084 yards. The result was an 8-4 finish, capped by a 63-21 thrashing of Virginia in the Bowl.

"It wasn't fun," Illini lineman Ray Redziniak said about those first two seasons. "Winning games is so much more fun. Nobody got a taste of that those first couple years. Then last year, we start winning, and nobody can get enough of it."

The Illini can contend for the Big Ten title mainly because of who they do not play and where they play other contenders this season. Not on the schedule this season are pre-season Big Ten favorite and fourth-ranked Wisconsin as well as No. 14 Purdue. Illinois does play No. 6 Michigan and No. 16 Ohio State, but both games are at home.

Kittner's one area of concern will be the emergence of a top receiver. Brandon Lloyd, the top returning receiver, broke his leg over the summer and is out for the season. The Illini have a young receiving corps this season, led by sophomores Greg Lewis and Walter Young, who originally was recruited to be quarterback.

This is the last season Middle Tennessee State will play as a Division I-A independent. The Blue Raiders, who are in just their second season at the I-A level, will join the Sun Belt Conference in 2001. They return 10 starters to a unit that averaged almost 25 points per game and 357.8 yards per game.

Quarterback Wes Counts threw for 2,603 yards last season and set a school record with three straight 300-yard games. Kendall Newson had 62 catches for a school-record 918 yards last season and needs only 11 receptions to become the school's all-time leader. Split end Tyrone Calico had 65 receptions for 695 yards and five scores for the Blue Raiders, who hope running back Jamison Palmer will exceed his 1999 total of 548 yards.

The Blue Raiders hope their offense can keep Kittner off the field for prolonged periods of time. Coach Andy McCollum conceeded his team will try to contain Kittner and Harvey, trying to limit their damage.

"We're not good enough to overcome breakdowns," McCollum said. "We need to keep him contained. We have to get pressure on him and hit him like any quarterback. (Kittner) does a great job throwing the ball down the field and running their offense."

Illinois opened the 1998 season with a 48-20 rout of Middle Tennessee State, scoring 41 points after falling behind 20-7. Harvey and Steve Havard each scored two touchdowns for the Illini.