Down 13-10 at halftime, Illinois badly needed a way to move the ball on the Broncos and it found it in the combination of Troy Pollard, a senior tailback who's never quite cracked the top of the depth chart, and Donovonn Young, a freshman who may be on his way to doing just that.
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Pollard had a career-high 133 yards rushing, Young piled up 100 and the Illini came from behind to survive the Broncos, 23-20, on a Saturday that had the distinct feeling of relief.
"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."
The win gives Illinois a 4-0 record for the first time since 1951, the year the Illini won the national championship. But after trailing 13-10 at the half with fans booing, there was no talk of unbeaten records or titles of any kind.
"I walked into the locker room and it was very somber," said Illini coach Ron Zook, who spent much of the week reminding players about that 23-17 loss to the Broncos in 2008. In the comeback, however, Zook said he saw some toughness in his team.
"Sometimes you've got to go through games like that," he said. "There's a lot of times, teams would have lost that game."
In the Western Michigan locker room, quarterback Alex Carder struggled to explain how the Broncos (2-2, 1-0 MAC) had become the loser.
"Everybody is just sitting in disbelief that it happened the way it did," he said.
Carder finished 30 of 48 with 306 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while Jordan White had his 14th career 100-yard game, catching 14 balls for 132 yards a TD.
Western Michigan had the ball for almost 17 minutes of the first half, keeping the Illini defense on the field and building that halftime lead.
Over the final two quarters Illinois, using that ground game, held the ball for more than 22 minutes, keeping it away from Carder and White. Carder had 100 yards passing over the final 30 minutes and White was held to four catches and a relatively modest 43 yards.
In all, Illinois had 296 rushing yards on 52 carries, 184 of those yards in the second half with Pollard and Young sharing most of the load.
"You've heard me say this a thousand times," Zook said. "You can't have enough running backs."
Early in the third quarter 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 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, 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 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. A few plays later, with 8:14 left in the game, Dimke hit a 21-yard field goal that put Illinois up 23-20.
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."
Things only 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.
Illinois opens Big ten play next Saturday at home again Northwestern, the fifth straight home game for the Illini. Western Michigan travels to Connecticut.