Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase runs the bootleg during last Saturday's 28-22 victory over a game Northern Illinois team.

Dissecting Illinois (28) – NIU (22): Some Game Balls, Catcalls & Potential Pitfalls

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After an encouraging 2-1 start, the Illinois football team will certainly take a step up in competition during its next game, when the #2 Ohio State Buckeyes travel to Memorial Stadium.

An 11 a.m. game time has been set for the October 2nd OSU-Illinois clash, which will be aired on the Big Ten Network.

With Illinois enjoying a bye week, Writing Illini is going to switch things up a bit this week, with the NIU recap coming after the jump; the Thursday Cram Session getting moved to the Saturday Afternoon Gridiron Wrap; the weekly upcoming opponent preview and game predictions getting held until next week; and a review of the first quarter of the season arriving on Thursday.

With a week away from football, maybe we’ll even get the chance to finish the Illinois Basketball Summer School Series (though we’re not making any promises).

And now to the NIU-UI recap.

Final Score: Illinois 28, NIU 22

A full recap of the game can be found on Writing Illini’s Gameday Binoculars.

Positive at Last

Illinois’ win on Saturday was important for several reasons.

For one, Illinois is still the king of public universities, that is, at least in its own state. Illinois is 13-0 against public in-state universities. Illinois will not play another in-state team (other than Northwestern) until it faces SIU again in 2013.

Secondly, Illinois has a positive record for the first time since November 2008. Give the team a pat on the back after finally getting this monkey off its back. Now Illinois must avoid falling into another slump after its bye week as a daunting Big Ten stretch of Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan State will arrive in consecutive weeks.

Finally, Illinois showed that it can close out a game. Last season, the Illini were unable to stop opponents from driving all over the field late in the game. In the NIU game, the Illini were able to hold off a Huskies’ comeback to secure the win and improve to a plus- 500 record.

Hugh Thornton OK

For those of you who watched the game or followed it on Writing Illini, you know that sophomore offensive guard Hugh Thornton gave the crowd a scare when he injured his neck on a play late in the third quarter.

Thornton did not move on the field for 15 minutes after a helmet-to-helmet collision with an NIU defensive lineman during a Mikel Leshoure rushing attempt. The Illini training staff treated Thornton very diligently and carefully, turning him over slowly, removing his face mask, and then getting him immobilized on a stretcher and cart before taking him to the hospital.

Thankfully, tests found that Thornton suffered just a strained muscle as opposed to a serious neck injury.

According to Illini head coach Ron Zook, Thornton is expected to play against Ohio State.

Let the Scoreboard Do the Talking

The Illinois-NIU series doesn’t typically evoke images of a heated rivalry, but someone forgot to tell the players that on Saturday afternoon.

As NIU took the field before the game, Illinois players left the sidelines.

The teams engaged in a standoff and shouting match before getting back to their sidelines without  any further incidents.

Zook apologized for the standoff after the game, saying:

I apologize. I’ve never seen the team do what they did at the beginning of the game. There was a lot of chirping going on so it’s not all our guys’ fault. But it’s not what I want to see.

Game Balls

Nick Houska’s Illini Game Ball

Running back Mikel Leshoure

LeShoure stepped up big-time against NIU. He broke off several big runs during the game and had a crucial 4th down conversion and then a touchdown as Illinois was running down the clock to seal the win.

Going back to last season, Leshoure had rushed for more than 110 yards in his last three games. He racked up 184 yards and 3 touchdowns (one off a pass) against Fresno State, 112 yards against Missouri, and 115 yards and 2 touchdowns against SIU.

Leshoure continued his streak on Saturday, rushing for 180 yards and a game-clinching touchdown against the Huskies.

With his amazing performance, Leshoure has tied the team record for consecutive 100+ yard games.  None of Illinois’ running backs, including the likes of Pierre Thomas, Rashard Mendenhall, and even Red Grange, have ever had 5 straight 100+ yard games.

While Illinois’ next opponent Ohio State will be sure to focus in on Leshoure after his outstanding performance so far this season (Leshoure’s 407 total rushing yards this season is the 8th best total in the nation), don’t count out the Illini junior running back, who is proving that he is a  veryspecial player.

Chris Maynard’s Illini Game Ball

Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino

Petrino made it a point early and often on Saturday to run the football, with Leshoure and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase combining for nearly 200 years in the first half alone.

The Illini may have got stuffed on some plays, but certainly broke off some big runs as a result of sticking with its bread-and-butter.

● The Illini Training Staff

Kudos to the Illini trainers for doing a very diligent job of taking their time while caring for a motionless Thornton after his scary third-quarter injury.

Other Players Worth Mentioning

Nick Houska

● Scheelhaase

The redshirt freshman quarterback continues to impress with his running game and overall athleticism.

Despite only throwing for 70 yards on 8-16 passing, he ran for 115 yards and a spectacular leaping touchdown on the opening drive.

The more important stat: Scheelhaase had no turnovers.

Despite several hard hits and decent pass protection, Scheelhaase was able to control the ball and keep from giving NIU any extra chances.

Also, Scheelhaase made a key third-down throw to A.J. Jenkins at the sticks, extending a late fourth quarter possession that would result in a Leshoure touchdown that put the game away.

Anthony Santella

Surprised to see a punter as one of the games most outstanding players?

Don’t be.

Santella has been having a terrific senior season, posting a new career long punt on Saturday as he booted the ball 67 yards in the fourth quarter.

Santella’s average distance for the game was 48.7 yards.

Santella is currently second in the nation with a 48.9 yard average, which is sure to put him on the watch list for the Ray Guy Award that is given to the nation’s best punter every year.

Derek Dimke

The Illini kicker continues to shine with both his field goals and his kickoffs.

While other Big Ten teams are experiencing trouble on the special teams (not including Michigan State), Illinois is excelling in this critical phase of the game.

Dimke made 2 more field goals and 2 PAT’s to continue his perfect streak, and every one of his kickoffs were touch backs in the end zone.

Chris Maynard

I agree with Nick’s selections, especially Santella, who was crucial in the third quarter as Illinois couldn’t get anything going offensively. Defensively, the Illini allowed too many big plays to my liking, though I thought that Corey Liuget, Justin Green, Justin Staples and Martez Wilson had some nice moments, as did Ian Thomas again. I will give the defense credit in that it shut down NIU running back Chad Spann, though Huskies’ quarterback Chandler Harnish had too many big runs.

Catcalls

Nick Houska’s Pick

● Penalties

Although the Illini finally went a game without any turnovers, a feat that should not go unacknowledged, they still had 8 penalties for 85 yards. Illinois must clean up its game before Big Ten play begins if it wants to have any chance of making a bowl.

Especially concerting was the fact that Illinois was not disciplined, as evidenced by three personal fouls, including a late Clay Nurse roughing the passer that allowed NIU to kick a field and set up an onside kick late in the game. Oh yeah. the Nurse penalty wiped away an Ian Thomas interception, which would have been Illinois’ first pick of the year.

Summoning my inner Steven A. Smith, quite frankly, Illinois is not good enough to make boneheaded mistakes, especially with Ohio State up next.

● The Third Quarter Offense

While Illinois kept NIU from scoring in the third quarter, the Illini could not get on the board either. In fact, the Illini had a hard time getting a first down.

The Illini seemed to  have trouble getting started again in a quarter that saw 4 of both team’s 7 possessions go three-and-out.

Scheelhaase especially struggled with his touch in the third quarter, though he bounced back with a couple of key throws in the final quarter.

Anyways, that makes 2 of 3 games (Missouri being the other one) where Illinois has not been able to carry its momentum past the half.

Illinois needs to find out what the problem is and get it fixed because the team can not continue to come out of halftime in such offensive ruts.

Chris Maynard’s Pick

● Too Many Big Plays Allowed on the Defensive End

Illinois had done a good of limiting the big play in the first two weeks, but struggled against NIU.

The Huskies scored three touchdowns rather quickly, with Illinois letting Harnish go off for a couple of big runs and hit a couple of big passes down field.

● Trouble Containing the Running Quarterback

Harnish is not Terrelle Pryor, but still had a big game on the ground, often going untouched during some simple yet big scampers up the middle.

With the real Terrelle Pryor arriving in Champaign in less than two weeks, the Illini will need to cut off the long run against the Buckeyes, that is, if they don’t want to have a long day.

Potential Pitfalls/Downfalls

Nick Houska

The Illini Defense

Illinois’ defense seemed to take a step back during this game after having a very solid game against SIU. The Huskies gained 390 total yards, 1 yard more than Illinois, and were a ridiculous 20-26 passing.

Illinois continues to have a hard time getting turnovers. While the Illini did force one fumble, what would have been the season’s first interception was negated by a late hit call.

Illinois was unable to get a single pick against a team that had thrown 4 in its last 2 games. If Illinois wants to be competitive in conference play, they need to be able to defend the pass better and force more turnovers.

Chris Maynard

Scheelhaase’s Leaps of Faith

Don’t get me wrong. I love how Scheelhaase competes from play to play. His overall toughness and moxie are quite endearing.

With that said, Scheelhaase left his feet a few too many times to my liking against NIU.

Me thinks that Scheelhaase will not get away with such daring feats against the Buckeyes, and that he will turn the ball over at least once if he continues to do so against Ohio State.

Writing Illini Prediction Record: 3-0 (100%)

Until Thursday, when Nick Houska reviews the first quarter of the Illini season.

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Tags: Anthony Santella Buckeyes Football Chad Spann Chandler Harnish Corey Liuget Derek Dimke Football Hugh Thornton Huskies Football Ian Thomas Illini Football Illinois Fighting Illini Football Illinois Football Justin Green Justin Staples Martez Wilson Mike Leshoure Mikel Leshoure Nathan Scheelhaase NIU Football NIU Huskies NIU Huskies Football Northern Illinois Football Northern Illinois Huskies Football Ohio State Buckeyes Football Ohio State Football Ron Zook Terrelle Pryor

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