Whitney Mercilus and the Illini are looking to start 4-0 for the first time since 1951.
Sept. 19, 2011
Sept. 24, 2011 // 2:37 pm CDT kick // BTN
Champaign, Ill. // Memorial Stadium (60,670)
The Illinois/Western Michigan game will be nationally televised on the Big Ten Network with an air time of 2:30 p.m. CT. Wayne Larrivee (play-by-play), Jon Jansen (color analyst) and Lisa Byington (sidelines) will call the action with Tony Desanti producing and Chris Lincoln directing. BTN will televise multiple games at 2:30 pm CDT on Sept. 24. Get local channel info at BTN GameFinder.
The 41-station Illini Sports Networkwill carry the radio broadcast with the pregame show beginning at 2 p.m. CT. Calling the action will be Brian Barnhart (play-by-play), Kurt Kittner (color analyst) and Steve Kelly (pregame, halftime and postgame). The broadcast also can be heard on SIRIUS (135) satellite radio.
Tickets are available for Saturday's game against Western Michigan and can be purchased at the UI Athletic Ticket Office at Assembly Hall, by calling 1-866-ILLINI-1 or online at fightingillini.com.
After Saturday's 17-14 win over No. 22/18 Arizona State, Illinois is now 3-0 for the first time since 2001, the program's last Big Ten championship season. The Illini have not opened a season 4-0 since 1951, the program's last national championship season.
The Illini have won four in a row dating back to last season, which is Illinois' longest winning streak since 2007 and is tied for the sixth-longest current streak in the nation.
Illinois' win over Arizona State marked the program's first victory over an AP-ranked opponent since topping No. 1 Ohio State on Nov. 10, 2007. The Illini had dropped nine straight games to ranked teams before Saturday. It also was the Illini's first win over a ranked non-conference opponent since beating No. 25 Louisville, 34-10, on Sept. 22, 2001.
Illinois is ranked 24th in this week's Associated Press poll, marking the program's first appearance in the AP rankings since Sept. 21, 2008, when the Illini were ranked 22nd in the AP poll and 21st in the coaches poll. The Illini did not receive a single vote in last week's polls, but the win over No. 22/18 Arizona State was enough to propel them into the AP Top 25 and just outside of the coaches' Top 25.
The Illinois defense came up big in the upset of Arizona State with 12 TFLs, six sacks and three takeaways, while allowing just 14 points to a team averaging 42.5 ppg entering the game. For the season, the Illini lead the Big Ten in rushing defense (63.7 ypg), sacks (3.7 per game) and TFLs (8.7 per game).
The defense has not allowed a point following Illinois' four turnovers this season, while forcing eight takeaways that have led to 24 points. Following the 19 Illini turnovers in 2010, the defense allowed only 39 points (three TDs and six FGs).
Illinois has converted all 13 of its red-zone chances into points this season, scoring 10 TDs and three FGs on trips inside the 20. Twenty-six teams remain perfect in the red-zone this season, but only nine of those teams have had at least 13 red-zone chances. In 2010, Illinois ranked third in the nation in red-zone scoring percentage, picking up points on 49 of its 52 trips inside the 20 (94 percent).
Illinois ranks third in the nation in third-down efficiency, converting 26-of-42 (.619) third downs during the first three weeks of 2011.
With only 10 penalties for 70 yards on the season, the Illini rank eighth nationally in fewest penalties committed (3.3 per game) and seventh in fewest penalty yards per game (23.3). The Illini were penalty-free in the opener, the first time in 18 years that the Illini played a game with being flagged.
Sophomore LB Jonathan Brown was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after a dominating performance in the upset win over Arizona State. Brown had a hand in two of the three Illini takeaways, including an interception, and racked up seven tackles, 3.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks.
Sophomore QB Nathan Scheelhaase has picked up where he left off last season. He ranks sixth in the nation in passing efficiency (180.95), completing 33-of-46 passes (71.7 percent) for 504 yards, three touchdowns and only one interception. He also has rushed for 184 yards and two TDs on 39 carries (4.7 ypc). Scheelhaase has thrown 16 TDs against just two INTs over the last 10 games.
WR A.J. Jenkins is saving his best season for his last. The senior ranks second in the Big Ten and 16th nationally in both receptions per game (7.33) and receiving yards per game (107.3). His 16-yard TD catch-and-run in the fourth quarter against Arizona State proved to be the game-winner.
Senior RB Jason Ford has 23 career rushing touchdowns, tying him with Mikel Leshoure, Ty Douthard and Red Grange for seventh on the UI career list. He needs just two more to move up to second place and is eight behind Howard Griffith's UI career record of 31.
ILLINI COACHES TO PARTICIPATE IN CURE MD WEEK
Illinois coach Ron Zook and staff will join forces with coaches around the country this Saturday to support the Coach to Cure MD program. All the Fighting Illini coaches will be wearing patches on their sleeves Saturday to raise awareness of Doo-Shin Muscular Dystrophy. To donate $5 to Coach to Cure M.D., text the word "cure" to 90999, or visit www.coachtocuremd.org to make a donation.
THE BIG TEN'S RUSHING TEAM
During the Ron Zook era (since 2005), Illinois leads the conference in rushing yards per game. The Illini's 205.5 yards per game (15,617 yards in 76 games) in the last six-plus seasons tops Wisconsin's 200.0 ypg (16,203 yards in 81 games) during that same time span.
The Illini are averaging 223.7 yards per game on the ground this season, which ranks 22nd in the nation. Their 364 yards on the ground against South Dakota State is the 16th-best single-game rushing total in the nation this season and the third-highest in the Big Ten.
The Illini have led the conference in rushing in three of the last five years (2006, '07 and '10). Last season, Illinois averaged 246.1 ypg on the ground, which ranked 11th in the nation, is the third-highest total in school history and is the second-highest total by any Big Ten school since 2005, behind only Illinois' 256.8 ypg in 2007.
The Fighting Illini have finished the season ranked in the top-20 nationally in rushing yards per game in four of the last five years. Illinois ranked 11th in 2010 (246.1 ypg), 17th in 2009 (200.4 ypg), fifth in 2007 (256.8 ypg) and 20th in 2006 (188.8).
Illinois has produced three NFL running backs in the last five years. Pierre Thomas (Saints) and Rashard Mendenhall (Steelers) are both starters that have led their respective teams to the Super Bowl. Mikel Leshoure (Lions), a 2011 second round draft pick, will miss his entire rookie season after suffering a torn Achilles tendon during training camp.
WESTERN MICHIGAN SERIES NOTES
Illinois leads the all-time series with Western Michigan 2-1 and won both previous meetings in Champaign, 60-14 in 1947 and 30-27 in 2004. The Broncos won the most recent meeting in 2008, 23-17, in a game played at Ford Field in Detroit.
Saturday's game marks the fourth of five straight home games to start the 2011 season. Illinois has eight total home games this season for the first time in the Memorial Stadium era and first time since 1903, when the Illini played nine home games. After last Saturday's victory, the Illini have an all-time record of 250-209-14 at Memorial Stadium.
FORD, SCHEELHAASE CLIMBING RUSHING LISTS
After running for a team-high 192 yards in the first three games this season, senior RB Jason Ford has 1,554 career rushing yards, ranking him 22nd on the UI all-time career rushing list and sixth among active Big Ten players. Meanwhile, sophomore QB Nathan Scheelhaase became the 38th Illinois player and just the second UI quarterback to reach 1,000 career rushing yards with 67 yards against ASU.
SCHEELHAASE PICKS UP WHERE HE LEFT OFF
Sophomore QB Nathan Scheelhaase is off to a fast start in 2011. He is completing over 71 percent of his passes and ranks sixth nationally in passing efficiency (180.95). He also has rushed for 184 yards (4.7 ypc) and two touchdowns, pushing him over the career 1,000-yard milestone with 1,052 career rushing yards.
Scheelhaase has made drastic improvement during his 16 games on the field. After tossing four touchdowns and seven interceptions in Illinois' first six games of 2010, Scheelhaase rebounded to throw 13 TD strikes against just one pick during the final seven games. When you factor in his 2011 numbers, he now has thrown 16 touchdowns and just two interceptions since the midpoint of 2010.
Scheelhaase has been outstanding in Illinois' 10 wins since the beginning of the 2010 season, completing 123-of-176 passes (69.9 percent) for 1,554 yards, 13 TDs and two INTs for a 166.2 efficiency rating. He has also rushed for 686 yards on 126 carries (5.4 ypc) and four TDs in those 10 games. For comparison, Scheelhaase is 65-of-134 (48.5 percent) for 775 yards, seven TDs and seven INTs for a 103.9 rating in Illinois' six losses.
JENKINS MAKING MARK ON RECORD BOOK
Senior WR A.J. Jenkins' fast start to the 2011 season (22 rec., 322 yds, 2 TDs in three games) has propelled him onto a few of UI career record lists. Jenkins currently ranks sixth in career TD receptions (13), seventh in career 100-yard receiving games (5) and ninth in career receiving yardage (1,478). He is approaching the top-10 in career receptions with 99 (needs 11 for 10th).
Jenkins' 11 catches against Arkansas State were a career high, tied for the most ever in a season-opener by an Illini (David Williams had 11 against Northwestern on Sept. 1, 1984) and also tied for eighth-most in a single game in school history. It also marked the most by an Illini since Arrelious Benn had 12 catches against Minnesota on Oct. 11, 2008.
Fresh off a record-breaking 2010 season, the Illini offense has picked up the pace even more in 2011. Through three games, the Illini lead the Big Ten in scoring offense (35.3 ppg), total offense (410.7 ypg) and rushing offense (223.7). Last season, the Illini broke school records for both total points scored (423) and points per game (32.53) and led the Big Ten in rushing (246.1 ypg).
The offense has exploded since the midpoint of 2010. During the first six games last year, the Illini averaged 21.3 points and 320.0 yards per game. In the 10 games since then, the Illini are averaging 40.1 ppg and 437.4 ypg.
Illinois has shown its ball-control ability early in 2011, holding the ball an average of 32:52, which ranks 18th nationally in time of possession. The Illini have had six scoring drives last at least 10 plays and five minutes each.
The Orange and Blue also have shown quick-strike capabilities, with six scoring drives lasting less than two minutes and two under one minute.
Illinois' 53-point margin of victory against South Dakota State on Sept. 10 is its largest since 1944, when the Illini defeated Illinois-Normal (Illinois State), 79-6. Illinois' 56 points were its most at home since 2002, when the Illini scored 59 against Arkansas State.
The Illini dominated South Dakota State on Sept. 10, racking up 519 total yards and 364 rushing yards, marking the third time in the previous five games that they topped 500 total yards and the seventh-straight time they topped 200 yards rushing.
Illinois' three quarterbacks (Scheelhaase, O'Toole and Osei) combined to complete 16-of-18 (.889) passes against South Dakota State, breaking the school record for single-game completion percentage. The previous record was 20-of-24 (.833) against Arkansas State on Sept. 14, 2002.
QB Nathan Scheelhaase and WR A.J. Jenkins have connected 71 times since the start of the 2010 season. Only the Michigan State duo of Kirk Cousins and B.J. Cunningham have more completions during that time span (76). Michigan's Denard Robinson and Roy Roundtree are third, connecting 61 times in that span.
Wide receivers Jenkins (148 yards) and Darius Millines (119 yards) both went over 100 receiving yards against Arkansas State on Sept. 3, marking the first time that two Illini had at least 100 yards in the same game since Oct. 11, 2008, against Minnesota (Arrelious Benn  and Jenkins ).
Senior RB Jason Ford has taken over as the feature back in 2010 after the departure of All-American and Illinois' single-season rushing record holder Mikel Leshoure. Ford has rushed for a team-high 192 yards and four touchdowns in the first three games. He currently ranks 22nd on the UI career rushing list (1,554 yards) and is tied for seventh on the career rushing touchdowns list (23) with Leshoure (2008-10), Ty Douthard (1993-96) and the legendary Red Grange (1923-25).
Senior RB Troy Pollard had a career day against South Dakota State, totaling a career-high 101 yards on eight attempts (12.6 ypc), including a four-yard TD run and a career-long 61-yard scamper. Pollard's previous career high was 92 yards as a true-freshman against Syracuse on Sept. 15, 2007.
Weak-side tackle Jeff Allen anchors the Illini offensive line once again. The senior has started every game since the fourth game of his freshman season, giving him a team-high 37 consecutive starts. Allen earned second team All-Big Ten honors while helping pave the way for the Big Ten's top rushing offense in 2010.
With Allen as the anchor, most of the offensive line is loaded with experience. Junior weak-side guard Hugh Thornton, junior center Graham Pocic and senior strong-side guard Jack Cornell are all returning starters from a team that led the Big Ten in rushing. The only new part is the strong-side tackle spot, where RS freshman Michael Heitz has started the first three games and has played nearly every snap so far in 2011.
True-freshman QB Reilly O'Toole finished a perfect 9-for-9 passing with 50 yards and his first career touchdown pass against South Dakota State, his second collegiate game.
Illinois has eight takeaways so far in 2011 (five interceptions and three fumbles), which is the most for a UI team in the first three games since the 2001 team had 12 (seven interceptions and five fumbles).
The Illinois defense made huge improvements in 2010 under first-year defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. In the final NCAA statistical rankings from 2009 and 2010, the Fighting Illini jumped 61 spots in turnover margin, 53 in total defense, 48 in points allowed, 44 in rushing defense, 42 in pass efficiency defense and 39 in passing defense. The improvement has continued in 2011.
The Illini allowed only 96 yards to South Dakota State, marking the first time since 1998 that a UI opponent had fewer than 100 total yards in a game (69 yards by Middle Tennessee State).
Illinois held South Dakota State to just three points, 96 total yards and 25 rushing yards. It marked the first time since 1998 that the Illini kept an opponent under 100 total yards, when the Illini limited Middle Tennessee State to 69 yards. It also marked the first time in the last 13 games that the Illini held an opponent without a TD, dating back to Sept. 11, 2010, against Southern Illinois (35-3).
Opponents started 23 regulation drives in plus territory in 2010, but the Illini defense allowed just three touchdowns and 11 field goals on those 23 drives. In 2011, Illinois opponents have started three drives inside Illinois territory, scoring just one touchdown on those three drives.
The Illini defense ranked 24th nationally in defensive fourth-down efficiency in 2010, allowing only seven first downs on 17 opponent attempts (41.2 percent). So far in 2011, Illinois opponents have converted just 2-of-6 fourth down attempts (33.3 percent).
Senior LB Trulon Henry is leading the Illini with 18 tackles and two interceptions on the season, including a 27-yard pick-six against South Dakota State. Henry moved to the sam linebacker this season after starting 12 games at safety last season. He is the older brother of former Illini standout and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Arrelious Benn.
Sophomore LB Jonathan Brown had a hand in two of the three Illini takeaways against Arizona State, intercepting a Brock Osweiler pass in the third quarter and forcing an errant throw by Osweiler on Glenn Foster's first-quarter interception. Brown had career career-highs with 3.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks, and also added seven tackles as the Illini held the high-powered ASU offense to just 14 points. For the season, he has 4.5 TFLs, which is tied for the most in the Big Ten.
Junior DE Whitney Mercilus has become a force on the defensive line this season. He leads the team and the Big Ten in sacks (1.0 per game) and also has racked up 4.0 TFLs, two QB hurries, two forced fumbles and one PBU.
Junior DT Glenn Foster's interception in the Arizona State game was the first of his career. It also was the first interception by an Illini lineman since Doug Pilcher on Sept. 12, 2009, against Illinois State.
Senior linebacker Ian Thomas is back to the familiar role of middle linebacker for the 2011 season, registering 15 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, one sack and two QB hurries in the first three games. Last year, Thomas played weak-side linebacker while current New Orleans Saint Martez Wilson held down the mike position. Playing in the middle isn't new for Thomas, as he led the team in tackles as the MLB in 2009 after Wilson suffered a season-ending neck injury.
Junior safety Supo Sanni returned to the field this season after missing all of last season with a ruptured Achilles. Sanni recorded a career-high six tackles, including a half-TFL, and forced a fumble in the season opener against Arkansas State and picked up his first career interception against South Dakota State.
Redshirt freshman LB Houston Bates was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week on Sept. 5 after racking up five tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and one fumble recovery against Arkansas State in his Illini debut.
THE SPECIAL TEAMS
Senior PK Derek Dimke remains perfect during the 2011 campaign, hitting all three of his field goal attempts and all 13 of his extra points in the first three games. He has hit 32-of-37 field goals in his career, putting him atop the Illinois career FG percentage list at .865. He also is a perfect 68-of-68 on extra points since taking over kicking duties late in the 2009 season, making him one of only two players in Illinois history to be perfect on extra points with at least 65 attempts.
After scoring 22 points in the first three games of 2011, Dimke has raised his career total to 164. He needs 10 points to jump into the top 10 in Illinois history. His 32 career field goals rank eighth in Illinois history, two behind Neil Rackers' seventh-place total of 34.
True-freshman Justin DuVernois has taken over punting duties after the loss of 2010 first team All-Big Ten punter Anthony Santella to graduation. He has punted 10 times for a 39.1-yard average this season, including a long of 48, five fair catches and one inside the 20, and also had one free kick for 49 yards following a safety. DuVernois is one of just seven true-freshman starting punters in the nation.
Santella also served as holder from 2008-10. Sophomore Tim Russell has taken over holding duties for 2011.
Junior Zak Pedersen is in his second year handling long snapping duties for the Fighting Illini. He earned a scholarship prior to this season after serving three years as a walk-on.
MISCELLANEOUS TEAM NOTES
Ron Zook is in his seventh season as Illinois' head coach. Zook was the 2007 Liberty Mutual National Coach of the Year after taking the Illini to the Rose Bowl. His has an overall record of 31-45 at Illinois.
After the win over Arizona State "Under the Lights" earlier this season, Illinois improved to 14-7 all-time in night games at Memorial Stadium and has now won four consecutive prime-time match-ups.
The win over Arizona State on Sept. 17 gave Illinois a win over a Pac-12 opponent for the first time since Sept. 1, 2001, when they beat California, 44-17. The Illini had dropped five straight games to Pac-12 foes before the victory. It also marked head coach Ron Zook's first career victory over a Pac-12 team in three tries.