Illinois narrowly edges Western Michigan for best start since 1951

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- With a halftime lead on Illinois, Western Michigan saw a chance to relive a little recent history.

The Broncos had held the ball for almost 17 minutes, keeping the Illini defense on the field and building not just the 13-10 lead but a bit of confidence. After all, Western Michigan had knocked off the Illini the last time the teams played, in 2008, and for 30 minutes on Saturday moved the ball on the No. 24 Illini like another upset was in the works.

That was before Illinois (4-0) turned the ball over to its running backs, dominating second-half possession and depriving quarterback Alex Carder and receiver Jordan White of the ball in a 23-20 win.

"It's gut wrenching," Carder said. "Everybody is just sitting in disbelief that it happened the way it did."

Carder finished 30 of 48 with 306 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while White had his 14th career 100-yard game, catching 14 balls for 132 yards a TD.

But most of that production came in a first half that ended with the Broncos (2-2, 1-0 MAC) up by only 3 points and WMU never found a way to move the ball on the ground. They finished with just 35 yards on 21 carries.

Carder had 100 yards passing over the final 30 minutes and White was held to four catches and a relatively modest 43 yards.

"Did they out-physical us at the end? Probably," Bronco coach Bill Cubit said. "But during the game I thought our kids did a pretty good job."

In all, Illinois had 296 rushing yards on 52 carries, 184 of those yards in the second half with tailbacks Brandon Pollard and Donovonn Young sharing most of the load.

"You've heard me say this a thousand times," said coach Ron Zook, whose Illini are 4-0 for the first time since 1951. "You can't have enough running backs."

Pollard finished with 133 yards on 14 carries while Young, a freshman, had 100 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.

"I think I was at the right place at the right time," Pollard said. "It feels pretty good to help out the team as much as you can, especially when your number's called and you can do big things."

Early on, Carder, White and Illinois' offensive struggles gave the Broncos a great chance for a repeat of the 2008 upset that would have cost Illinois their week-old ranking. The Illini only moved into the Top 25 with last Saturday's win over Arizona State.

With the Illini up 10-3, Western Michigan struck with a 76-yard, clock-eating drive that ended with a 23-yard field goal from John Potter that cut the deficit to 10-6.

The Illini ran three plays that went nowhere before backup punter Ryan Lankford, one of Illinois' starting receivers, blooped a 21-yard, rugby-style punt that set up the Broncos at the Illini 39.

Three plays later, Carder hit receiver Chleb Ravenell, who sidestepped charging safety Supo Sanni and sprinted to the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown and a 13-10 lead.

"In the first half we were clicking," said Carder, who faced heavy pressure and was sacked twice. "They have a solid D-line and I'll tip my hat off to that, but other than that there was nothing we hadn't faced before."

Potter missed a pair of first half field goal tries that could have meant the difference.

"We stayed toe-to-toe with them the whole time," Cubit said, noting the points the Broncos left on the field.

Things only got worse for the Illini after Ravenell's touchdown. Illinois moved down the field for a potential score, but offensive lineman High Thornton was flagged for unnecessary roughness and Scheelhaase was sacked for a loss of nine yards. His heave into the end zone was picked off, but another lineman Jeff Allen, was ejected after the teams jostled on the way to the locker rooms.

The final half was much different. With a first and 10 at the Western Michigan 14, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase ran left on an option with Young trailing him, taking the pitch just as Scheelhaase absorbed a wicked hit.

Young scooted hard around the corner, shooting a gap between three Broncos defenders and into the end zone. Illinois was back in the lead at 17-13 with 10:27 left in the quarter.

After a Derek Dimke field goal put the Illini up 20-13, Western Michigan tied the game late in the quarter on a seven-yard pass from Carder to White. Early in the fourth quarter, though, Pollard gave the Illini the edge they would use to win.

On a first and 10 at the Illinois 30, the back squirted out of the middle of the Illini offense and down the right sideline for his 49 yard run, forced out by cornerback Lewis Toller.

A few plays later, with 8:14 left in the game, Dimke hit the 21-yard field goal that put Illinois up 23-20.

Western Michigan travels to Connecticut next Saturday while Illinois opens Big Ten at home again Northwestern, the fifth straight home game for the Illini.