"I don't think they ever questioned the opportunity to win this football game," said Illinois coach Tim Beckman. "Again, that comes from the players and it comes from the players' belief in the system that we are doing offensively, defensively, and on special teams. We've got a ways to go, there's no question."
Illini quarterback Wes Lunt looked great at times by how he placed the football in spots, but he is still working on consistency in just his second start for Illinois. The redshirt sophomore Lunt completed 35-of-50 passing attempts for 456 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. However, the Illinois signal caller came through in crunch time and looked sharp in the fourth quarter by nailing all six pass attempts after the 12:27 mark.
The leading receiver for the day was Justin Hardee with six receptions for 110 yards and a touchdown followed by 6-foot 4-inch junior Geronimo Allison who tallied 97 yards on eight catches. A touchdown reception by Hardee on a short route early in the fourth quarter helped the Illini gain momentum late to pull off the win; the junior receiver has talent at yards after catch by taking the score 62 yards.
The Illinois offense still struggles to find stability and continues to have major issues with their rushing attack with only tallying 64 yards on the ground, albeit two running touchdowns in the redzone. Illinois has one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country, ranking fifth in the Big Ten and 23rd in the nation, coming into today's match, but they are yet to exude the veteran-ship in the rush game. Lunt, despite his troubles at times, is who carries the offense.
"I still don't feel offensively that we are clicking in all cylinders yet, but we're still able to put some points on the board," said Beckman. "I'm going to challenge him, as I always will. If it's fourth and inches, we're going for it. I'm not going to kick a field goal. You go for it, you run the play, and you put it in the end zone. We are going to continue to do that until we get that done."
The Illinois defense was sound with forcing three turnovers, but the offense also gave up the ball three times in crucial moments which kept the game close throughout. Illinois free safety Taylor Barton snagged up an interception late in the fourth bringing it back for a score to put Illinois up 35-27. The sophomore Barton ended Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty's streak of 176 pass attempts without an interception. Sophomore defensive tackle DeVante Terrell tallied his first career fumble recovery and pass broken up during the first quarter. The leading tackler of the day for Illinois was senior safety Zane Petty with nine.
"It was great to see. He's a young man (Barton) who has put a lot of work throughout the summer," Beckman said. "He is a film studier, like no other. He's in there evaluating what he does, evaluating what the opponent does, so it was great to see it pay off for Taylor. I know he was excited to be able to pick it and run for six."
For the Hilltoppers, junior running back Leon Allen powered the offense behind his 118 rushing yards and a touchdown. After Leon's 100-plus yard rushing performance, WKU has now recorded 46 straight games dating back to October 9, 2010 in which a player has recorded at least 100 all-purpose yards. On defense, junior linebacker Nick Holt was the leader in sacks (two) and tackles (12) for Western Kentucky.
"I just do my part," said the Hilltopper RB Allen. "If it's time for me to get the ball a lot, I'll get the ball a lot."
Comically speaking, Western Kentucky definitely beat Illinois in the battle of names with players DT Ge'Monee Brown, CB Prince Charles Iworah, and CB Wonderful Terry.
Next up for Illinois, they make the long trip to Washington and later this month, the Illini play at Nebraska for the Cornhuskers homecoming. Illinois still has some issues to shore up before their next game and conference play, especially on the O-line.
"There are things during that football game that did not turn out the way we wanted them to," as Beckman stated, "but the 'W' is a 'W' and we're going to learn from it and we're going to continue to make this program better."