The hearts of all Illinois players, coaches and fans sank as sophomore offensive guard Hugh Thornton was placed gently on a stretcher and carried off the field during the Northern Illinois football game Saturday. Fortunately, the news from the doctors was as good as one could possibly hope to receive.
"He's gonna be fine" Ron Zook stated. "He has a strained neck. They did an MRI and CT scan, it's just strictly a strained muscle. He put his head down, which is what you shouldn't do, and that's what happened.
"He'll probably miss tomorrow and Tuesday, and we'll keep him out of contact this week probably. But he'll be fine. He'll be ready for Ohio State."
Illini players need time to recuperate from bumps and bruises sustained through the first three games. But they may be going into the OSU battle two weeks hence as healthy as they have been since the beginning of the season. For instance, cornerback Terry Hawthorne has a chance to be available for the game according to Zook.
"I doubt if he'll be able to do much this week more than what he has been doing. He's been biking, walking in the boot and all that stuff. I'm hoping that possibly next week he can begin to get back into it. That's strictly the doctor's call."
Zook can't say with 100% certainty, but he thinks senior receiver/quarterback Eddie McGee will be back. And he says senior fullback/tight end is getting closer to full health.
"(Becker) is probably about the same place as Terry is. In terms of what he's doing, he's probably a little ahead. He's on the elliptical, he's out of his boot on those things. He walks in his boot during the day, but when he's working out he's got his shoes on."
Zook assessed the NIU game.
"We weren't quite as sharp as we were last week. Overall, there were some things they did that cost us some big plays. I think Nathan (Scheelhaase) wasn't quite as sharp throwing the football as he was the week before. I think those are all correctable. We need to keep working."
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said Scheelhaase needs to improve his confidence in the pocket after Saturday's game. As Zook reminded, he is still just a freshman and will continue to develop over time.
"I don't know that he's having any problems but obviously experience. What happens to young quarterbacks is, rather than waiting in there for things to open, because he was having success with the run he would take off. But I don't think it's necessarily a problem. It's part of learning. The more experience he gets, the better he's gonna be."
The running game was strong against NIU, especially late in the game. Zook praised the blocking both at the line of scrimmage and downfield.
"As the game went along, we got better. Everyone is all fired up in the first quarter. You have to be patient as a coach and keep pounding away. One thing the offensive staff did yesterday is they kept running the football. Obviously the offensive line and the blocking was good."
Defensively, Illinois struggled containing NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish. An even better running quarterback will appear in Memorial Stadium October 2nd when Terrelle Pryor and the Ohio State Buckeyes visit. Running quarterbacks pose problems for any defense.
"Any time you've got a guy that can run the football, it puts added pressure on the defense. You're gonna rush the passer, you get out of your lanes and he takes off. Obviously, you've got to be option sound. Sometimes it slows you down when you're having to think about your options. Sometimes you have to think on the run. It's definitely an added pressure that a defense has to be concerned about."
Penalties hurt the Illini at crucial times Saturday. Zook gave his thoughts after reviewing film of the game.
"Obviously, we can't have motion penalties. You just can't have them. We can't have dumb penalties, that's the thing that I get upset about. A motion penalty or blocking somebody in the back, those are dumb penalties. Those are things that are gonna have to be corrected.
"I think there are penalties that happen just out of aggressiveness and how officials see it. Sometimes he'll see the end of the play, the guy's down and he just assumes he was pushed down. Those things happen. I don't have as big an issue with those as the foolish penalties. Those are the ones we have to completely eliminate."
Zook wants to use the bye week constructively. The team will practice the first three days of the week before taking a couple days off.
"The big thing is to continue to improve. There's a few wrinkles we want to look at this week. To me, open dates are to give you extra time to practice. You might experiment with some things, some things you'd like to be able to try. We'll look at a little bit of Ohio State Tuesday and Wednesday."
The main thing is he doesn't want his players letting up their efforts to improve.
"I don't want them in the off-week mode. They need to take a little break Thursday and Friday in terms of relaxing and maybe getting your mind off of football. But we'll probably work on Sunday as well. I think it's important that they take this week and use it. It's not a vacation.
"Maybe if you've got some nicks here and there, it's a chance to get healed up. It's a chance to get caught up in school. The only difference between this week and a game week is you don't have the added pressure of a game."
The bye week gives Zook and his assistants a chance to do some recruiting beginning Thursday.
"I'm probably gonna be on the road recruiting. The NCAA has made it so that one week during the season you can have ten coaches out. Right now not everyone, but the majority of them will be (out on the road). Paul (Petrino) and Vic (Koenning) for sure will be out because they haven't been out at all. I'll get into some areas where you can travel. This is the one time you can get out of state because you have time to travel."
Zook was asked to assess the mood of the team. Certainly, it is much better than last year at this time.
"They'd rather be 3-0, but I think the mood of the team (is good). It's a lot better feeling coming off a win than a loss. I think the great thing about this team is that we understand we have to continue to push the envelope, continue to get better and stay after it just like we have."