A Look Back: Missouri Game Aids Illini

The Fighting Illini football team must take on highly motivated Southern Illinois Saturday, but much early week talk focused on a review of the Missouri game. The Illini fought hard and believe they could have won the game with more consistency. If nothing else, it was a learning opportunity that could pay dividends later in the season.

Illinois looks back on what might have been after watching tape of the Missouri game. Head coach Ron Zook saw much to build on, including how upset the players were after the loss.

"As far as last week goes, I think there were an awful lot of good things that happened. The problem is, in this game, it's about winning and losing, so you can't enjoy the things that you'd like to be able to enjoy quite as much.

"But I really do believe that in all 3 phases we made progress, we got better. As I told the football team, we're installing 3 things: we're installing a new offense, a new defense, and a new attitude. And when that happens it's not going to be perfect right from the get-go. But I still believe that there were a lot of good things that happened.

"I've been very, very pleased and impressed with how our team has handled the game since it's been over. Because that was very important to me, particularly talking about attitude, how they're going to respond to what happened and how they're going to respond to not finishing, those kind of things. I can't say enough about the way they've responded after the game, just like you would want them to and expect them to.

"They're hurt, probably more than any other loss that we've had here, and I think that gives you an opportunity to build on and know that they've invested a lot. They understand what they have to do to get back to where we all want to go.

"I saw hurt, disgust. When you have a lot invested in something, it hurts when you lose. And I think to have a winning program there has to be a lot invested. I've talked many times about the feeling we had on Saturday night. I wouldn't wish that upon my worst enemy. I mean, it's awful.

"I think the more you've invested in something and the more important it is to you, the more you're going to do to improve. And I think most people saw that there were an awful lot of good things that happened Saturday. The problem is you can't enjoy them quite as much because of the end result."

Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino knows improvements have to be made, but it's all relative.

"From where we were when we first started spring ball to where we are right now, we've gotten a lot better. We've got a chance to be real good. We've just got to keep battling and keep fighting, come out every single day of practice and get better. When you get better as the season goes along, that's when you win games."

Missouri was highly aggressive second half and took away some of what the Illini were trying to do. But Petrino believes the problems moving the ball second half were due more to the offense than the Mizzou defense.

"When you watch the tape, they didn't do as much as they might have been patting themselves on the back for. We hurt ourselves a couple times. People are gonna try to stop the run regardless because that's what we do best. We've just got to have the ability to make big plays in the passing game.

"No matter when, you want the defense to play both and have some balance. The number of runs and passes was almost 50-50. We've just got to execute them better.

"There were a couple plays first half I thought they took away second half. But there were some plays we didn't run second half that we should have kept running, to be honest with you. It was just one or two plays, it wasn't like the whole half. When I went back over the tape, there was only one third down play I would have changed if I had to do it all over again."

Illinois appeared to leave its offense in the locker room at halftime.

"You've got to learn how to finish the game. They were all excited and happy when we went in at halftime. They executed real well first half. There were just a couple little things we didn't execute properly (second half), especially those first two drives. You can't have that. When you get somebody down, you have to put them away."

Nathan Scheelhaase was playing his first college game at quarterback, and his four turnovers contributed greatly to the loss. But Petrino was pleased with his effort and refused to put the blame on the rookie alone.

"He did some things well. We did really good in the first half as a whole offense. The second half we made some mistakes that we can't do. We can't turn the ball over that many times and win the game, number one. But I thought he showed courage, played with toughness.

"We all have to play better around him too. I think the biggest thing that killed us the second half was the first two third downs. All night long we were trying to get to third and medium, third and short. We got to it the first two times second half, but on the first we got sacked and on the second we had a dropped ball. Otherwise we keep those drives alive.

"That's something we've got to work on and continue to improve. In the first drive of the first half, we converted three third downs. So we've got to do a better job of that. And we've got to do a better job of running and blocking in first and second down so we don't have to convert on third down."

For his part, Scheelhaase enjoyed himself. He may have been overly psyched for the game, but he wasn't overwhelmed by it.

"There was nothing that went on that I wasn't used to or hadn't happened in practice. It was a blast just being out there, competing against somebody else. I had a great time out there. I thought our offense played with tremendous passion and effort. There was nothing that threw me for a loop while I was out there. I felt it was second nature being out there."

Scheelhaase addressed his mistakes in a forthright manner.

"I definitely saw a lot of stuff I can get better at. The best thing about it, there weren't any big problems that are tough to correct. On an individual level, it's little things that can be easy fixes when you really focus on them every day in practice. The more you rep it, the more you know it in your mind. If you have those things in your head all week in practice, they'll come at you in the game.

"It's definitely a learning process. In high school, you're used to having to make the play all the time. College is a longer game, there's more to the game. You've got to know when is the right time to take a chance and when throwing the ball away is all right. That's something that I'll learn. I probably learned more about that in this game than anything.

"In high school you take more risks because you know you can get by simply with athletic ability and playmaking skills. But at this level, you can't force the issue when it's not there. You have to learn to take calculated risks and the correct times to take them. There were times in the game when I did a good job of that, but there were definitely times when I could have done better."

As with numerous Illini fans, watching the game afterward gave him hope for the rest of the season.

"Watching the tape actually made me feel better and gave me a lot more confidence. When I talked to people after the game, even the fans, they were all really positive. They said we showed a lot of effort. I think we did show a lot of effort. That's something we were accused of not doing every snap (last year). I think we did a real good job of that this game. People were saying we should have won that game, and that's what I was thinking."

Many fans are concerned that Scheelhaase will take too many hits during the season due to his propensity to run the ball. They worry he will be injury-prone. He took some hits Saturday, but so far so good.

"The body feels good. I didn't feel like I got hit too much after the game. But more and more people kept asking me how I feel. After I watched the tape, I did take a few shots. But I'm used to taking some good licks. I feel a few bumps and bruises, but nothing crazy."

The Illini offensive line struggled at times against the Tigers. False start penalties and occasional problems stopping the rush disrupted offensive execution. Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert says the problem was technique and not intensity.

"We have a long ways for improvement. Any coach will tell you you improve most between the first and second games, and that's what I'm hoping for. The guys gave great effort. They were excited and played hard.

"From a technique standpoint, obviously we can improve. We can also get better with our assignments. In the second half we got on our toes a little bit instead of just doing what we did in the first half."

Missouri did a lot of stunts and twists on the defensive front. Did they confuse the Illini offensive line?

"At times we did pretty good. We saw that in camp with our defense with slants and angles. Overall I thought we did a pretty decent job. It wasn't them stopping us as much as us stopping ourselves."

Running back Mikel Leshoure was asked to compare the Illini offense in 2009 and now. Last year's Missouri game was discouraging to Illini Nation. Is there a different feel among the offensive players this year?

"I think it's different. I feel like we played a lot better than we did last year. I still think the guys believe we can win and have a good season. We just need to make the corrections and go out and play football.

"We were pretty confident last year, but at the same time the game we played was a lot different from this game. Offensively we executed, and we showed that first half that we can do a lot of good things. That was different from last year; I don't think we were as offensively productive. This year we were more confident in what we were doing."

Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning was terse in his comments early in the week. He takes every loss hard. The Illini gave up far less yardage this year against MU compared with 2009. But that is not good enough for Koenning.

"We had a lot of players, I was worried about them but they came through. But we didn't do what it takes. I'm gonna keep going back to that. We should have won, but we didn't make the stops."

Looking at the big picture, Zook saw reason for optimism from the defense.

"I think we swarmed the football. Any time an offense spreads you out the way they spread you out, you got some guys that sometimes have to go a long way to get to the gap. I thought for the most part we did a pretty good job.

"There was a little period there in the third quarter where they got some yardage on us, but I thought for the most part we played pretty well. We tackled decent, not great, but we tackled decent. The biggest thing is we swarmed to the football.

"The thing is you go back and look at the third quarter, we had a little lull but we came back. They had their own little meeting, it wasn't the coaches, it was those guys. They said, 'Hey, let's get this thing together and get going,' and they went out there and had two 3-and-outs."

Three starters in the defensive backfield were new to their positions, and Justin Green was a running back until two weeks ago. Junior leader Tavon Wilson was switched from cornerback to safety to lead the secondary. He feels Green and new safety backup Steve Hull asserted themselves.

"I thought they played pretty well, especially for a first game. I know I couldn't have come in and played that well in my first game against Missouri. Their total yards were two hundred less than last year, so I think they actually did pretty well.

"Me and the other three guys back there before had a lot of chemistry back there, and that takes a lot of time since we were forming that chemistry since the spring. It's gonna take some time, but I feel pretty good about where we're at.

"I definitely expect Stephen and Justin to stay there. They know they can really help us this year and next year. When Terry (Hawthorne) comes back, he's gonna add to what we already have. Terry's a tough guy, so I think he'll be back before Ohio State."

Wilson practiced almost entirely at the boundary corner all spring and summer, but he played well as a safety against the Tigers.

"I thought I did pretty well for my first game. I didn't give big plays. I missed a tackle on a 17 yarder, but there were no explosive plays like touchdowns. I'm feeling good about that."

Like the offensive members, Wilson and his teammates were encouraged by their play Saturday.

"I think everybody is way more hungry because they know that we can be good now. We played a really good first half, we've just got to finish. I think everyone knows we can be a good football team, and they believe it now. So I think we'll be pretty good."


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