CHAMPAIGN — Changes made in the offseason already have begun paying dividends on gameday. “I’m not sure we would have won that game a year ago,’’ admitted Illinois coach Ron Zook, shortly after Illinois held off Northern Illinois 28-22 on Saturday.
CHAMPAIGN — Changes made in the offseason already have begun paying dividends on gameday.
“I’m not sure we would have won that game a year ago,’’ admitted Illinois coach Ron Zook, shortly after Illinois held off Northern Illinois 28-22 in a non-conference football game played before a crowd of 50,569 Saturday at Memorial Stadium. “When we had to do it, we did it.’’
It’s possible Illinois just protected the home field prior to a rugged three-game stretch to start the Big Ten Conference. The Illini found enough offense on the ground and enough help on defense to climb above the .500 mark for the first time since Nov. 1, 2008, when Illinois was 5-4 before losing three straight games to end the season.
The Illini (2-1) have time to heal and feel good prior to hosting No. 2 Ohio State on Oct. 2. Behind offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, the Illini have built some confidence in themselves and their coaches. With another win or two, maybe they’ll be convinced in the stands.
“Last year, we were playing from behind,’’ said running back Mikel Leshoure, whose 180 yards rushing were four short of a career high. “I don’t know if people believed we could actually win.
“We thought in camp we were a good team. We loved the offense. We thought coach Petrino would put us in situations where we could win if we did our job. We felt confidence a while ago.’’
Leshoure became the first Illini running back to reach 100 yards in four straight games since Robert Holcombe in 2007, and Leshoure converted a fourth and 1 at the Illinois 46-yard line late in the fourth quarter, then swept around right end for a 29-yard touchdown and a 28-19 lead with 4 minutes 17 seconds left.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase used his feet and left his feet, diving for extra yards before finishing with a career high 115 yards on 16 carries. Yet Illinois knows it must still keep them honest by throwing the ball after passing for only 70 yards.
“We were trying to find ways to move the ball,’’ Petrino said. “That way was to run it today.’’
That’s something to worry about later, because the Illini don’t want to be distracted with noise in the system.
“We definitely know what we’re doing on the defensive side of the ball,’’ said linebacker Nate Bussey after Illinois allowed 10 points in the game’s final 49 minutes. “With the new defense and the new defensive coordinator, we’re confident they’ll teach us what to do and the right technique.’’
Northern Illinois (1-2), the favorite to win the Mid-American Conference west division, took a 12-7 lead on two first-quarter touchdowns, looking inspired behind the return of coach Jerry Kill from a five-day hospital stay for complications following surgery earlier this month.
“There wasn’t any decision to be made,’’ Kill said. “I wasn’t going to miss any ballgame.’’
But after Illinois survived by rushing for 319 yards and three touchdowns while completing just 8 of 16 passes, Kill recognized the difference between this season and last season for the Illini.
“Coach Zook has done a great job with hiring some people that are very good,’’ Kill said. “Their kids gave every ounce they had, and their coaches did a heck of a job with the game plan and putting things together.’’
Leading 21-12 with 7:07 remaining, the Illini defense watched Northern Illinois streak 80 yards in three plays and 1:07 to pull within 21-19.
“We played pretty good in the second half until that three-play drive when we needed to make them take their time,’’ Koenning said. “That’s just when we needed to show that we’ve about got the game in order. Before that in the whole third quarter, we were really, really, really good.’’
Northern Illinois running back Chad Spann, who entered the game as the MAC’s leading rusher with 110 yards per game, finished with 15 yards on 13 carries. Quarterback Chandler Harnish had 117 yards rushing and 208 yards passing.
After the Illini defense picked up the slack in the third quarter, the offense scored twice in the fourth quarter with Petrino’s simple philosophy: Feed the studs. He gave the ball to Leshoure, who powered over the right side of the line for the key fourth-down conversion.
“We could be 3-0,’’ Zook said. “The biggest thing is the attitude of these guys is great. They want to get better. The coaches are doing a great job of coaching and demanding. As you get into the Big Ten, who knows?’’
NOTES: Illinois guard Hugh Thornton was released from Carle Hospital late Saturday afternoon after undergoing a CT scan following a neck injury late in the third quarter. He suffered a neck stinger earlier in the week, Zook said. . . Illini middle linebacker Martez Wilson had a game-high 11 tackles. . . Leshoure set a career high with 24 carries.