CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Troy Pollard rushed for a career-high 133 yards and No. 24 Illinois needed all three of Derek Dimke’s field goals Saturday to survive Western Michigan 23-20 and improve to 4-0 for the first time since 1951.
It wasn’t easy. The Illini trailed at the half 13-10 and booing fans recalled the 23-17 loss to the Broncos (2-2) the last time the teams met in 2008.
Illinois turned to Pollard, a senior who’s never quite cracked the top of the Illini depth chart, freshman tailback Donovonn Young, and the option. All three delivered.
Pollard’s 49-yard burst midway through the fourth quarter set up a 21-yard Dimke field goal that gave the Illini the three-point lead they wouldn’t give up. Illinois put up 196 rushing yards in the second half, including 95 from Pollard and 40 from Young.
The option delivered on the opening possession of the third quarter.
Down 13-10 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 Dimke field goal put the Illini up 20-13, Western Michigan tied the game late in the quarter on a seven-yard pass from Alex Carder to Jordan White, whipped hard as the receiver ran toward the right side of the end zone chased by safety Steve Hull.
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 5-foot-8 back squirted out of the middle of Illini offense and down the right sideline for his 49 yard run, forced out by cornerback Lewis Toller.
Carder 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.
Carder was 30 of 48 with two touchdowns, 306 yards and one interception. White caught 14 balls for 132 yards.
The Broncos served notice early that this would be a fight. With the Illini up 10-3, Western Michigan struck back 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, Carter 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.
Things got worse for the Illini. 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.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)