ICYMI: Fresh Faces Lead Illini's Late March Past the Penguins
By Mike Koon, fightingillini.com contributor
The Fighting Illini football team opened the 2014 season with a 28-17 victory over Youngstown State Saturday at Memorial Stadium. It was the Illini's 17th straight home-opening victory.
Lunt passes grade in first Illini start
In the season opener, all eyes of Illini fans were on sophomore Wes Lunt. The Oklahoma State transfer and Rochester (Ill.) native took over the reigns at quarterback for Illinois' all-time career total offense leader Nathan Scheelhaase.
Lunt led Illinois on three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter to give the Illini a 28-17 home victory over Youngstown State on Saturday. For the game, Lunt was 24-of-38 for 285 yards. In addition to three 4th-quarter touchdown passes, Lunt was 9-of-11 for 155 yards in the final quarter.
During that fourth quarter rally, fans got to see the future of the offense with not only Lunt, but also true freshmen Mike Dudek and Malik Turner making impressive catches down field. After dropping a would-be touchdown earlier in the game, Dudek, got Illinois his first score in nearly 30 minutes with an eight-yard strike from Lunt just over a minute into the fourth quarter.
Combined with junior college transfer Geronimo Allison, the newcomers to the receiving corps accounted for nine receptions and 146 yards receiving.
The other three touchdowns came from veterans - an early second quarter catch by Jon Davis, the go-ahead 15-yard toss to Josh Ferguson and a pinpoint strike to Martize Barr from 29 yards out that sealed the win with 2:33 remaining.
"Early on I was nervous and was doing some things I hadn't been doing, like not setting my feet and trying to do too much," Lunt said. "As the game went on, we got more strikes down field and I got more comfortable."
In addition to making plays, the young signal caller also made some key reads down the stretch.
"(Offensive coordinator) Bill (Cubit) gives him the opportunity to put us in the right call," Beckman said. "As the game progressed, he got better and better with that and showed his arm strength. As Wes responded, the offense responded.
"He got better all the way through the game," Cubit added. "Here's a guy that hadn't played in two years. He was a little jittery early, but the route running wasn't as crisp and he threw a couple of balls that should have been there. When that happens, you worry about his confidence level, but it never affected him. You could just see it every series, there was more emotion by him today than I've seen from him since I've been here. It's great to see him have fun out there."
On offensive goals
Coming into the game, Cubit set a few goals for his offense. First he said, they wanted to protect the quarterback. Youngstown sacked Lunt just once and had had no quarterback hurries. Secondly, he wanted to see his team convert deep inside opponents' territory by scoring touchdowns, which Illinois did all four times found itself in that situation. Finally, he wanted to see his squad come up with some big plays on third down. Illinois was 3-of-10 on third downs through three quarters but 5-for-5 in those situations in the fourth quarter.
"Am I happy? I'm never happy," Cubit said. "But there are a lot of positive things that happened out there."
One of the areas in which Illinois struggled statistically was in the run game, tallying just 78 yards on the ground.
"They put one more guy down there," explained Cubit "That's what's going to happen. When they do that, your wide outs have to go win their battles. We weren't winning those early, then it got better."
Cubit is impressed with the young receivers.
"It's representative of the quality of kids you've got," he said. "Everybody thinks this game is so easy. Look at everything else that's going on in college football. It's hard to win and it's even harder with a bunch of young guys out there. But I feel good about the direction those young guys are heading."
Fourth quarter magic
Illinois trailed Youngstown State, 9-7 after three quarters. Through that time, the Penguins out-gained Illinois 262-172, which included a 178-42 advantage on the ground.
"They all knew that it was going to be a four-quarter football game," Beckman said. "All these guys did a great job of continuing to fight. The first three quarters weren't anything of what we wanted to be as a football team. But I was proud of the way the game finished. It was a W. It wasn't a pretty W. It was definitely a game we can learn from."
While Illinois was young at some of the skill positions, the Illini had veterans up front, returning starters Simon Cvijanovic and Michael Heitz on the left side, center Alex Hill and right guard Ted Karras, which led the way in the fourth quarter.
In fact, at halftime, it was Cvijanovic that Beckman turned to get things fired up.
"Simon was the first one to raise his voice and say `Let's get this thing rolling,'" Beckman said. "That's what's great about this football team. They take care of one another and that is because the senior leadership."
"I was mad at halftime because this is not how we practice," Cvijanovic said. "This is not how we prepared and what we want out of this season In the fourth quarter, we started to click at all levels. We started picking up protections the right way. We started blocking the runs the right way and good things happened.
Illinois picked up the tempo on offense as well.
"When you go real fast like we did at the end of the game, it will take the defense's legs away real quick," Cvijanovic said. "I think we were able to do that in the second half and the next thing you know, they're not coming off the ball."
Defense leads the way
Last season Illinois gave up 464 yards and 34 points in the season opener against FCS Southern Illinois. In this opener, however, it was the defense that held the reigns until the offense could get rolling. Youngstown State had just three field goals through three quarters.
That comes in large part to experience.
"There's just a different vibe on the team," said senior nose tackle Austin Teitsma, who had nine tackles, including two for loss "We've been so juiced all week to play. I didn't feel that last year as much as we did this year."
Illinois had seven tackles for loss, including three sacks. Veteran Mason Monheim led the way with 14 tackles, while sophomore Taylor Barton had a strong start to his season with a team-best six tackles for loss.
"We're trying to lead them in the right direction," Teitsma said. "I thought a lot of the younger guys showed up for us, which was awesome. I'm excited to see what they have to offer the rest of the year."
Although Youngstown State had 178 yards on the ground in the first three quarters, the Penguins managed just 25 in the fourth quarter while quarterback Dante Nania completed just 11 passes in 24 attempts for the game.
"At the end of the day, you have to be able to stop the run," said defensive coordinator Tim Banks "I think we did it well enough in the fourth quarter. In this day and age, guys are going to be able to move the football. I thought our kids were really locked into the down and distance situations. That allowed us to capitalize on the things we had seen on film."
On what his defense needs to focus on, in addition to some breakdowns on third down, Banks said, "The screen game hurt us. That wasn't our issue last year because we didn't rush the passer well enough to make our opponents feel like they could screen us. I thought we got off the ball pretty well and put some pressure on the quarterback, which was a positive."