Illinois head coach Ron Zook had reason for optimism after the 35-3 win over SIU. Both the offense and defense showed improvement over the Missouri game. Zook said it is easier to defend a high octane offense like the Salukis when the offense sustains drives.
"Anytime as a defensive player or coach, you love it when you can watch the game. The more that the offense is on the field, it's hard for bad things to happen to the defense because they're not on the field. I don't think there's any question that with good football teams, the offense controls the ball and doesn't turn it over, and when they do the defense rises to the occasion, which our guys did."
The offensive player making the biggest jump in efficiency between the first and second weeks may have been young quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Zook saw a big difference in one week.
"Like a different guy. Just his stats alone, he was really good. The thing you're gonna start seeing more of with Nathan is his 14 of 18 with 229 yards and two touchdowns. He threw the ball extremely well, very accurate. He stood in there and took some hits. He had a drop, he threw one out of bounds, so his percentage was really good.
"You're gonna see him continue to make plays. The touchdown pass to Justin Lattimore, everybody thought he was going out of bounds. And the option where he's coming down the sideline and pitches it while he's in the air to Mikel. Those are things he does. That's the thing we've all kind of been excited about when he was working on the scout team."
New offensive coordinator Paul Petrino has been installing a new system, and it takes time for everyone to learn it and respond instinctively on the field. But there has been excellent progress. Zook was asked how Petrino is able to make those improvements so quickly.
"I think number one, everybody has bought into what we're doing. That's 95% of the battle. If there was one way of doing things, we'd all be doing the same thing.
"(And) he's a very thorough teacher. A good teacher makes sure you understand it, not only the players but all of the coaches. Everybody's on the same page. That's why we were better last week than we were the first game."
Mikel Leshoure has been the unquestioned leader at running back so far this season, and backup Jason Ford began to assert himself at times Saturday. Third stringer Troy Pollard flashed some of his quickness as well, gaining 26 yards in 6 carries. Zook feels Pollard can help the Illini this year.
"I think he does enter into it a little bit. There's some things that Troy really does well. I think Mikel is pretty good at all of it, but there's some things that Jason does better than others, and there's certain things that Troy does. You try to get them into situations where they can be successful.
"Troy feels like he's back to the way he was when we recruited him. He had some injuries, and it just took him awhile to come back off that knee."
Zook received positive news Sunday morning regarding the physical status of Eddie McGee, the senior receiver/backup quarterback who was carted off the field Saturday night.
"It turns out he had an MRI this morning, and it's not a high ankle sprain which we were worried about. But it's a bad ankle sprain. It's just a matter of how fast he can come back off that. It's better than we originally thought. I wouldn't rule him out, but he's touch-and-go I would think, day-to-day."
How quickly McGee returns to full health may help determine the frequency which true freshman quarterback Miles Osei sees the field. He played in the SIU game, so now it is a matter of continuing to find opportunities to give him needed experience.
"If the opportunity presents itself, you'd like to I think (he would play). We'll play that by ear, and we'll have to wait and see where Eddie is."
Illini special teams have been much better this year so far, although Jack Ramsey did muff a punt against SIU. He explained that the ball got caught up in the wind, and he was caught between trying to field it and backing off. The ball bounced right in front of him and hit his hand. The Salukis recovered, but they subsequently fumbled it back to the Illini.
Ramsey had a 15 yard punt return in the game and is a threat there. Zook is confident that Ramsey is the man for the job.
"Remember the problems we had last year with the ball rolling? We've really talked to Jack about that. We've practiced it. It was just one of those things where he stuck his hand out in reaction and hit the ball. Obviously we can't have that happen.
"But what Jack was trying to do is exactly what we're trying to get done. We don't want to give up yards because of the ball rolling. That can happen. But he'll get better at that. I'm very confident with Jack back there."
Punter Anthony Santella boomed his punts for a 50.8 yard average. Zook is pleased with all aspects of the punt team's play.
"He's punting well, he really is. He's getting the ball off fast, I like the operation. Zak Pedersen is snapping the ball extremely well, we're protecting. We've just got to continue to do that."
Illinois is a much more disciplined team on the field and off this season. There are no excessive displays of attention-getting or reactions to dirty opponent play. And there is much better team camaraderie. It makes Zook's job easier.
"So far this has been a fun group. This is a different group, and I think they are a lot closer. I think they are pulling for each other. They are trying to be the best football team that they can be."
The Illini host Northern Illinois next Saturday morning, and the MAC school figures to be a stiff challenge. Zook says the Illini must continue to improve each week. No game is easy.
"They're gonna give us their best game, and we have to be ready to play. The attitude this team has taken is, we're not only gonna worry about our opponent, we're also worried about us and making sure we continue to improve.
"I think the way we approached last week is the way we've got to approach this week. We've got to take care of us. We've got to get better, and we've got to play the best we can possibly play and at the highest level we can play."