Eight quick things from Memorial Stadium after Illinois outlasted Northern Illinois 28-22 before 50,569 fans. They’re in no particular order. Feel free to cut and paste if they seem out of sorts to you.
1. Love the emotion shown by both sides. The Illini and Huskies were at each other’s throats (albeit mostly from a safe distance) before kickoff and the intensity lasted the whole game.
2. Illinois has a bye week before hosting No. 2 Ohio State on Oct. 2. It ought to spend extra time working on the passing game. Nathan Scheelhaase hit just 8 of 16 for 70 yards and took 2 sacks. Pass protection isn’t too good, either.
3. Scheelhaase, by the way, emerged from the game with a scrape on his chin and a red gouge on his neck. He knows he didn’t do the right thing when he leaped at the end of THREE RUNS in the first half. So much so, Scheelhaase said he spent part of his postgame shower trying to think of how to answer the question of why he kept doing it.
“I was just trying to make a play and that’s important for our guys,” Scheelhaase said. “I think it kind of gets our guys going. I probably need to do a little less of it. Whatever it takes to get a first down, to get a touchdown, to keep moving the ball down the field, those things are always important.”
4. Illinois guard Hugh Thornton, who was strapped to a board and carted off the field after a helmet-to-helmet hit with NIU DE Jake Coffman, was released from the hospital. The CT scan was negative and his biggest issue, thankfully, is a strained muscle in his neck. He had been dealing with a stinger for the last few weeks, so the hit was probably what put his neck on overload.
5. In four seasons at Illinois, kicker Michael Cklamovski never got to try a field goal in a game. But when he was on NIU’s side today, Cklamovski boomed a 48-yarder with 19 seconds left to pull the Huskies within 28-22. After the game, several former Illini teammates went out of their way to greet him at midfield. All of the kicking specialists did so, along with former roommate Ryan Palmer.
6. NIU should be no worse than a tossup to win at Minnesota next week. The Gophers are coming off a hard-fought home loss to USC, while the Huskies walked out of here encouraged by their progress. It’ll help if safety Tracy Wilson (left leg) and cornerback Chris Smith (cast on hand) are able to play.
7. Illinois’ defensive scheme was designed to throttle the running game – and it worked despite a pair of long quarterback draws by Chandler Harnish. Tailback Chad Spann managed just 15 yards on 13 carries. The tradeoff was NIU had extra room to throw the ball. Harnish hit 19 of 25 passes (a career-high 76 percent completion rate) for 208 yards.
The Illini’s run-centric defense also explains the 19-yard touchdown option pass by backup running back Jasmin Hopkins. While everyone on Illinois’ sideline screamed, “PASS!!!” NIU receiver Landon Cox ran uncovered into the end zone.
8. Illinois was dinged for 8 penalties for 85 yards, including the following 15-yard penalties:
a. Unnecessary roughness by Hugh Thornton while COVERING A PUNT 20 yards away from the punt returner.
b. Facemask by LB Nate Bussey on a play that went nowhere.
c. Roughing the quarterback on DE Clay Nurse.
There was another personal foul that was offset by an NIU personal foul.
Zook claimed he wanted to see some of those penalties because he wasn’t too sure of some of them from his vantage point. NIU’s Jerry Kill, on the other hand, will want to see whether Illinois held as much as he thought the O-Line held.
Random observation: Illinois true freshman tight end Evan Wilson cannot block, which makes sense since he's young and relatively slender. There’s something else for the Illini to work on during their bye week.