Week 1 of the NFL season kicked off this past weekend and several former Illinois Fighting Illini made an impact on defense, but none bigger than Whitney Mercilus for the Houston Texans.
The former defensive end has taken to outside linebacker quite well and was a disruptive force off the edge in the Texans’ 23-14 victory against the Chicago Bears, sacking Jay Cutler twice and forcing a fumble. Mercilus now has 14 sacks over his last 12 regular-season games. On the other side of the ball, Jeff Allen got the start at guard for Houston, whose offensive line allowed two sacks of Brock Osweiler on 39 dropbacks. Fullback Jay Prosch recorded one carry for two yards; the Texans’ run game averaged 3.7 yards per carry.
A fun bit of trivia: in September of 2011, Mercilus sacked his future teammate Osweiler twice in Illinois’ 17-14 win over Arizona State.
Two Fighting Illini squared off against each other as halfback Josh Ferguson of the Indianapolis Colts faced Tavon Wilson, who won the starting safety job for the Detroit Lions. Ferguson only had three touches in the game; a two-yard loss on a handoff and two catches on two targets for 26 yards. One of these catches was a nice-looking 12-yard scamper out of the flat on 3rd and 2 in a crucial fourth-quarter drive. Ferguson looks like he will make a decent quick pass-catching back. Wilson recorded four tackles in the Lions’ 39-35 victory.
In Arizona, an injury to starting tackle Nate Solder forced the New England Patriots to re-position their offensive line, and our own Ted Karras got the start at right guard. The rookie committed a first-down holding penalty on the Patriots’ final drive, but ultimately the line was able to help move the Pats down the field to set up a game-winning field goal that made the final score 23-21.
Jihad Ward made an early impact for the Oakland Raiders, recovering a Drew Brees fumble on the third play from scrimmage to set up a field goal. His impact on the rest of the game was minimal, as he’d finish with 3 tackles and a quarterback hit, but the early 3 points set up by his fumble recovery were decisive in a 35-34 win in New Orleans.
The San Diego Chargers held the Kansas City Chiefs to 83 yards rushing, but Corey Liuget and the defense gave up 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to set up an overtime loss by a 33-27 score. For his part, the defensive tackle recorded three tackles (one for a loss).
Cincinnati Bengals safety Clayton Fejedelem and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Akeem Spence were active but did not play. Wide receiver Arrelious Benn recorded no offensive stats for the Jacksonville Jaguars but did record a tackle on kickoff coverage, pushing Green Bay’s Ty Montgomery out inside his own 20 yard line.
Star cornerback Vontae Davis of the Colts remains sidelined with an ankle injury with no news on his potential return. New York Giants tight end Matt LaCosse was “waived/injured” and is thus on New York’s injured reserve after clearing waivers. He will spend this season recovering from knee surgery. Veteran corner Alan Ball was released from the Arizona Cardinals after an injury settlement was reached; aging with a quad injury, Ball’s days in the league may be at an end.
If you’re an Illini fan with no strong pro rooting interest, pull for the Houston Texans, who start three former Fighting Illini and feature an impact player in Whitney Mercilus. The defending AFC South champions are hunting for a second consecutive playoff berth.