Big Ten

After Dawuane Smoot goes in NFL Draft's third round, six Illini get NFL shots as free agents, camp invitees


After Dawuane Smoot goes in NFL Draft's third round, six Illini get NFL shots as free agents, camp invitees

Illinois' incredible track record of sending defensive linemen to the NFL continued this past weekend, as Dawuane Smoot was picked in the third round of the NFL Draft.

Smoot, going to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the third round, became the sixth Illini defensive lineman drafted since 2011, joining Corey Liuget, Whitney Mercilus, Akeem Spence, Michael Buchanan and Jihad Ward. Four of those guys, including Smoot, are defensive ends.

But there could be more Illinois rookies in the league this fall, as five of Smoot's former teammates were signed as undrafted free agents in the wake of the final selection on Saturday and a sixth got an invite to rookie mini-camp.

Wide receiver Justin Hardee signed with the Houston Texans, quarterback Wes Lunt signed with the Minnesota Vikings, linebacker Hardy Nickerson signed with the Cincinnati Bengals, pass-rusher Carroll Phillips signed with the Jaguars, and pass-rusher Gimel President signed with the Texans. Defensive tackle Rob Bain got an invite to the New York Jets' rookie mini-camp.

For those keeping score, that's three more Illinois defensive linemen getting shots with NFL teams.

Phillips, Lunt and Nickerson will be the most recognizable names on that list to Illinois fans.

Phillips had 20 tackles for loss and nine sacks last season, getting him on the All-Big Ten First Team, and he was expected by many to be selected this past weekend. Instead, he'll re-team with Smoot in Jacksonville.

Lunt was not expected to be drafted, but the classically pro-style quarterback, who was the starter for three seasons even if he had trouble staying healthy and staying on the field, will get his NFL shot in the Twin Cities. Despite those injuries, though, Lunt wrapped his time at Illinois ranking in the top 10 in program history in passing yards, completions and touchdown passes.

Nickerson, the son of a former All-Pro linebacker and Illinois' current defensive coordinator, was the Illini's leading tackler last season.

Hardee has battled his own injury issues and missed the entire 2015 campaign. President had 12.5 tackles for loss after transferring in from Auburn for one season. Bain could find an NFL job on special teams after blocking four kicks at Illinois.

Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota


Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

While Saturday's trip to the Twin Cities featured some more of the same for the Fighting Illini, it marked important step in Lovie Smith's rebuilding project.

Freshman quarterback Cam Thomas, a Marian Catholic product, saw action for the first time in his collegiate career, Smith busting out a new option at the game's most important position. Thomas threw a nasty pick six, but he did lead Illinois in rushing in a 24-17 loss at Minnesota.

Thomas only made four throws, completing two of them and landing a third in the hands of a Minnesota defender, but his play injected a bit of excitement into what's looking like another dreadful season of Illinois football, with Smith's team falling to 2-5 through the first seven games of his second season at the helm of the program. Thomas mostly starred with his feet Saturday, rushing for a team-high 79 yards in the defeat.

His first appearance came following the first of the Illinois' defense's three takeaways. Thomas ran for a nine-yard gain on his first carry, and the Illini tied the game with a touchdown on the next play. Thomas was interchanged with starting quarterback Jeff George Jr. from there on out.

While the Illini defense kept the Gophers at bay for much of the day thanks to those three takeaways, P.J. Fleck's team had no trouble racking up rushing yardage, finishing with a whopping 292 rushing yards. Minnesota engineered a 12-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter exclusively running the ball to break a 10-all tie and go up 17-10.

Thomas threw a pick six on the very next play from scrimmage, sending the Gophers up 24-10 to effectively seal the deal. George led an Illinois touchdown drive on the next possession, but the Illini couldn't make up the suddenly big gap in the limited amount of time.

Illinois finished with only 282 yards of offense. George was 18-for-23 for 128 yards and a touchdown. Ra'Von Bonner carried the ball 18 times for 57 yards and a touchdown.

The defeat dropped the Illini to 2-5 on the season and 0-4 in conference play. One of just two teams without a Big Ten win (Indiana is the other), Illinois faces off against a top-10 Wisconsin team next weekend.

Big play from Justin Jackson sets up Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa


Big play from Justin Jackson sets up Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa

Justin Jackson is one of the top 10 rushers in Big Ten history for a reason: He's very, very good at this football thing.

But it was a big play Jackson made not as a ball-carrier but as a pass-catcher Saturday that set up Northwestern's second straight win, a 17-10 takedown of Iowa in Evanston.

Jackson took a pass from quarterback Clayton Thorson and went all the way down to the 1-yard line, picking up 23 yards and shedding multiple tacklers on the game's biggest play.

Two plays later, Thorson plunged in for the go-ahead score. Iowa failed on a fourth-down conversion attempt on its ensuing overtime possession, ending it with a dropped pass that finished the game.

The game's result rapidly altered the social-media conversation, which moments prior had been mighty critical of Pat Fitzgerald, who made a controversial decision at the end of regulation.

Iowa tied the game at 10 on a field goal inside of two minutes to play, forced to kick after a false start was committed on fourth and 1. Fitzgerald had a minute and a half and two timeouts to try to get his own team into field-goal range for a shot at a win but instead ran the clock out and headed to overtime.

Fitzgerald explained after the game that the blustery wind at Ryan Field played a big role in that decision, plus his team had a long way to go against an Iowa defense that played well throughout the game.

Northwestern's defense was very strong, too, holding Iowa to 312 total yards, only 89 of which came on the ground. Hawkeyes quarterback Nathan Stanley was also picked off in the second half for the game's only turnover.

Jackson finished with 93 rushing yards and 38 receiving yards. Thorson was 21-for-36 passing the ball for 192 yards. Backup running back Jeremy Larkin scored the Wildcats' lone regulation touchdown.

The win improved Northwestern to 4-3 on the season and 2-2 in Big Ten play. After a 2-3 start, the Cats have won back-to-back games and take on a ranked Michigan State team next weekend.