Illinois junior Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 189 yards and two touchdowns. But that wasn't enough for Illinois coach Ron Zook after the 28-17 non-conference victory over Ball State in the homecoming game Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Illinois junior Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 189 yards and two touchdowns.
But that wasn't enough for Illinois coach Ron Zook after the 28-17 non-conference victory over Ball State in the homecoming game Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
"He left some things out there,'' Zook said. "He could have been over 200 yards and probably another touchdown.''
Expectations have grown at the position where the Illini don't have an overwhelming tradition. This season, Mendenhall will leave marks on the Illini record book that is short on big rushing numbers.
The Illini are proud of Red Grange in the 1920s, J.C. Caroline in the 50s, Jim Grabowski in the 60s, Robert Holcombe in the 90s and Antoineo Harris earlier this decade. Not a long list when compared to other Big Ten Conference programs.
With 1,113 yards this season, Mendenhall is only 217 yards short of the school's single-season school record of 1,330 yards set by Harris in 2002. Mendenhall's 14 touchdowns are one shy of the single-season record set by Howard Griffith in 1990. Mendenhall's 1,971 career yards rushing put him 13th all-time at Illinois.
A former five-star recruit considered the state's best player as a Niles West senior in the fall of 2004. Mendenhall, once again, served as the day's star of the game. He spun, juked, stiff-armed and powered his way through a Ball State defense not known for stopping runners.
"He's a big back, and he doesn't go down easily,'' Ball State linebacker Mike Dorulla said. "He doesn't go down with the first hit. He spins and keeps his legs driving. He's a great back.''
Yet Mendenhall would agree with Zook that his numbers should have been better against Ball State. He continually hesitated, trying to break the big one.
"I understand what he's saying,'' Mendenhall said. "I didn't have the greatest game in the world. I was trying to force things and make bigger plays instead of running and letting things happen.''
Mendenhall lost a fumble, and Ball State returned an interception 36 yards for a touchdown after it bounced off Mendenhall's hands. After waiting behind two older players the past two seasons, the 5-foot-11, 224-pounder is putting a beating on the Illini record book. His body knows it's getting more work.
"Last year, I was so fresh I could have played the next day,'' Mendenhall said. "Now it takes a little toll. It's probably Wednesday before I'm ready to go again.''
Illinois quarterback Juice Williams played the entire game for the first time in five weeks, leaving backup Eddie McGee on the bench. Zook decided to stick with Williams for the entire game after meeting with his staff Friday night.
"Barring injury, we were going to let Juice run with it,'' Zook said. "We felt like going through the practices that was the best for us. There's lots of things that goes into who plays, when they play and why they play. I'm not going to bore you with the details.''
Williams set his season high with 145 yards passing. His 56-yard pass play to freshman Arrelious Benn was Illinois' longest through the air this year.
Illinois senior DaJuan Warren made the catch on a first-quarter Ball State punt, drawing a Bronx cheer from the Block I. Warren took over the position after Illini junior Kyle Hudson muffed a punt that set up the go-ahead touchdown in the loss to Michigan last week.
"(Warren) wants to do it,'' Zook said. "That's half the battle. You have to have a guy back there that wants to be back there. If you're forcing a guy to be back there, that's kind of a light right there.''
Hudson didn't play against Ball State because of a sore foot, Zook said. Defensive end Derek Walker (sore foot) and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (sore back) also didn't play.
With four catches for 97 yards, Benn set the school's freshman receiving record with 556 yards, surpassing the previous record of 511 set by Brandon Lloyd in 1999.
Recruits like Benn helped Illinois become bowl eligible for the first time in six seasons.
"It's even more special feeling since there were so many doubters on why I came here,'' Benn said. "They said Illinois wasn't good enough to do this. It's something special being here. We've won six games coming off a 2-10 season.''
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. For more coverage, read Illini Talk blog at www.sj-r.com and www.pjstar.com.