Illini survive for second straight week, and it appears Illinois knows how to win games.
Remember the Illinois football team that found ways to lose. Such as a pass deflected into the hands of a Fresno State offensive lineman, who lunged into the end zone on the game-winning two-point conversion here in the closing seconds two years ago, or an inexplicable loss to Western Michigan in an empty Ford Field in Detroit three years ago. This isn't those Illini. Trailing 13-10 at halftime, No. 24 Illinois rallied for a 23-20 non-conference victory over Western Michigan Saturday before a crowd of 43,684 at Memorial Stadium for its first 4-0 start in 60 years. Instead of finding a way to lose, the Illini escaped with a victory for the second consecutive week. "There are years when you lose those games,'' said offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. "There's no doubt, these guys weren't going to let it happen. "We gutted out two wins two weeks in a row. That's toughness.'' It probably matters if you're a glass half-empty or half-full kind of Illini fan. A home victory over a Mid-American Conference team doesn't trigger tearing down a goal post, but the Illini are off to their best start since winning their first seven in 1951. "I walked into the locker room (after the game), and it was very, very somber,'' Illini coach Ron Zook said. "A lot of people may not agree. Sometimes you need to go through something like that.'' Senior placekicker Derek Dimke converted a 21-yard field goal with 8 minutes 14 seconds left, but the game wasn't decided until cornerback Terry Hawthorne tackled star Western Michigan receiver Jordan White on the Illini 41 with the time expired. "In the second half, we got done what we needed to do, which last year might not have happened,'' said Illini fullback Jay Prosch. When Illinois hosts Northwestern (2-1) in the Big Ten Conference opener for both teams next Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN2), it's a fresh start, but the Illini do it with a new attitude. "It's a different vibe,'' said quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who shared some of the snaps with backup Reilly O'Toole. "You could feel it in Rantoul. It was a different mentality. It's exciting. Instead of people getting down on each other, we like when there's pressure. We like being challenged. "It's fun to play with guys like that. It's fun to look at guys in the huddle that have that mentality. It makes it a whole lot more exciting.'' The Illini running game searched for a lead back, demoting Jason Ford and leaving the job to a committee (Ford, senior Troy Pollard and freshman Donovonn Young), and the Illini eventually wore down the Broncos by running it in the second half. The Illini compiled 296 yards rushing. Pollard rushed for a career-high 133 yards, and Young bounced back from an early fumble last week and plenty of time on the bench with 100 yards rushing for the first time and one touchdown. Ford, who entered the season as the lead back, gained only 23 yards and lost a fumble. "It's going to be a little bit more by committee, until one of them steps up and takes it over,'' Petrino said. "They're even right now.'' Scheelhaase was 14 of 20 for 133 yards passing with one touchdown and one interception, and O'Toole also passed for 34 yards while completing half of his six attempts. It wasn't enough to keep Western Michigan from stuffing the box to stop the run. "They pack the box,'' Prosch said. "There are people everywhere. It makes it difficult. We need to work on spreading things more, switching it up.'' Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder was 30 of 48 passing for 306 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. White caught 14 passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns, and the Broncos controlled the ball only 7:47 in the second half. For Illinois, that's much better than the 16:52 when the Broncos had the ball in the first half. It was a calm halftime talk, said defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. "Guys, this ain't practice,'' Koenning said. "I can't chase you around, holler and scream, drive you and crack the whip. This has to be y'all. "Definitely, I think the stats might lie. I don't think we played a bad game.'' Young capped a 10-play, 80-yard drive with a 14-yard touchdown run for a 17-13 lead in the third quarter. Dimke made a 35-yard field goal for a 20-13 lead, but Western Michigan (2-2) tied it with a 7-yard pass from Carder to Young early in the fourth quarter. So the Illini remained undefeated. "With Big Ten games coming up, this is when we starting proving ourselves and start changing people's minds,'' Prosch said. "We're improved from last year as far as finishing games. "People are starting to look our way. The Big Ten games, that's when he start changing minds.'' The Illini have already changed their attitude. John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie. Illinois report card Offense -- B- While Big Ten defenses are expected to crowd the line of scrimmage, the Scheelhaase-O'Toole combo will have to get it done in the air to create more space to run. Defense -- B The Illini gave up plenty of yards, and the missed tackle by safety Supo Sanni allowed a 35-yard TD pass in the second quarter. But coordinator Vic Koenning was pleased with his defense against a spread offense that gets plenty of yards but couldn't get enough points. Special teams -- C Placekicker Derek Dimke hasn't missed a kick this season, but the Illini need more out of their punting and return games. Overall -- B- Even if the Illini were due for a trap game, this was a little too close. Pick your perspective on being happy or not, but the Illini are undefeated in non-conference play for the first time since 2001.