Fighting Illini Take Advantage Of Bye Week

The Fighting Illini football team has had two weeks to prepare for Ohio State. However, they have taken advantage of the bye week to work on themselves as much as their next opponent. They needed time to refresh their minds and bodies before the start of the rugged Big 10 season, and they benefitted from extra practice time.

Illinois practiced the first three days of the bye week before taking three days off. The rest period was especially useful according to head coach Ron Zook.

"The week off was good for everybody mentally, physically, emotionally. They came out (Sunday) night, we don't normally practice on Sunday, and I was very happy with the way they came back. (And we had) one of our better Monday practices since I've been here.

"They're really excited for a lot of reasons. They're excited for the opportunity they have, and they're fresh. I think they feel a lot better about themselves. I think they needed to have some down time and freshen up a bit. That's why I'm a big believer in open dates.

"Last week, I'm proud of the way we tried to get better as a football team. We had three days of spring football in essence. They weren't happy in the beginning, but I think they're glad they did what they did. We spent a lot of time on ourselves, trying to get better."

The Illini have a rugged Big 10 schedule ahead, and every game is a challenge. As much as it would be nice to put the entire focus on the Ohio State game, balanced emotions are key to surviving the season.

"We've got to grind these next 8 weeks," Zook reminds. "We've got to take them one at a time. (OSU) is one game, and then we've got a pretty big game next week, a pretty big game the next week, and a pretty big game the week after that. They're all pretty big.

"We always talk about the schedule at the beginning of the year. It is one game at a time. You have to learn from each game and go on. That is kind of how we attacked it."

The schedule was similar last season, and the Illini never recovered from beatings at the hands of the same teams they fact these next few weeks. Illini players seem to have a more positive attitude and better confidence than they had this time in 2009.

"I think the mind set, if you want to compare, is much better obviously than it was last year. We feel good about the direction that we are going as a football team."

The Illini offense has not operated on all cylinders yet, in part due to the growing pains of having a freshman quarterback at the controls. Nathan Scheelhaase passed well in the SIU game but was inconsistent in the other two contests. He feels these past two weeks have helped the offense make needed improvements.

"We've definitely done a lot of things to get better. I think we've shown different areas of our game each and every game. We've felt more and more confident of what we can do every week.

"We're definitely still getting better, and we're still installing new stuff here and there for the different teams we're playing against. It always helps when you're throwing new wrinkles into it. A big thing we're getting better at is executing on Saturdays, including at critical times. That's a key."

Scheelhaase agrees with Zook about the value of time off to rest aching bodies.

"A good thing is that a lot of our guys are feeling healthy and feeling good about having that bye week last week. I think that was a big help for us."

Receiver A.J. Jenkins shares similar feelings about the bye week. He was also glad to spend more time on the Buckeyes.

"That's to our advantage, having two weeks to prepare for our opponent. Having a chance for our bodies to rest is a definite advantage, and we get more reps in preparing for them."

Running back Mikel Leshoure knows the Illini need to balance run with pass. He sees signs of growth in the passing game.

"Our passing game is struggling a little bit, but I feel we're making strides to improve that this week in practice."

Illinois running back turned cornerback Justin Green has a unique role to play Saturday. A one-time Ohio State commit who was a long-time fan of the Buckeyes since his brother played there, Green shunned them for the Illini. He knows some of the players and has many reasons to be fired up for the game.

But at the same time, he has had a crash course in defensive back play the last four weeks. Is he ready to go against Ohio State's speedy receivers? Zook is pleased with his progress.

"I have been really impressed with Justin Green. I talked to his high school coach this summer. At that time he said `Coach, I promise you, if you use him as a defensive back, you will be the most surprised coach in America.' And I said, `Why do you say that?' He said, `Because I think he is an all-pro defensive back.'

"Of course, I took it with a grain of salt. Then when it came into fruition, the way he has kind of picked it up, he is just a natural. He really has done a great job."

That may be true, but he is still a novice. Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning discusses the reality of Green's task this week.

"I'm kind of putting pressure on him to grow faster, grow more. He can't go from infant to terrible twos and like that. He's got to go from infant to college in three weeks. And we're gonna have to be in graduate school come Saturday. We're going for a Doctorate or beyond that.

"It's gonna be as big a challenge as anybody can give anybody. I'm sure he will do the best he can do. I'm doing the best I can to try to get him ready. He's a fine young man, and it's important to him. So that's all we can do."

There would be less pressure on Green if Terry Hawthorne, the projected starter, hadn't suffered a stress fracture in his foot. The Illini were hoping Hawthorne would be ready for the Buckeyes. Zook says that will not happen but is more optimistic about a few of the other walking wounded.

"Terry Hawthorne is probably not going to make it. Nate Palmer is back. He is going to be out there. The specialist has cleared Zach Becker, so it's a matter whether he can get ready to go.

"If I were a betting man I would have to bet on Eddie McGee. He is not 100 percent, but he (is improving). He stayed here all three days over the weekend. He worked hard, and we will have trouble keeping him off the field.

He is excited about this opportunity once again to play. I am really proud of the way he, even when he wasn't practicing last week, was in the huddle and getting the guys going. I thought that was impressive."

Bandit Michael Buchanan has been suspended the last three weeks. Zook says he may be able to play Saturday.

"There's a chance. The University has cleared him. Coach (Ron) Guenther and I will sit down on Friday and make a decision. (Buchanan) is about as remorseful as a guy can be, as he should be. He has apologized to his teammates. He knows that not only did he put his family and himself, but also this University and the football program in a bad light."

Hugh Thornton's playing status may also be determined Friday.

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