Zook Laments Mistakes, Sees Great Potential

The Fighting Illini football team came close to upsetting the highly-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes Saturday, but mistakes at key times led to its downfall. Head coach Ron Zook talked about the progress his team is making and provided details on the health status of several players in his Sunday teleconference.

Illinois coach Ron Zook knew ahead of time what he and his players would be thinking after reviewing film of the Ohio State game. Improvement was made, but so much more was possible.

"I think our guys are looking at this film and shaking their heads. If we had just done this, if we had just done this. The problem is you can't have anything back.

"If we'd just taken care of the things we could have taken care of. Don't get me wrong, our guys played their tails off. They played as hard as they can play. We did some things that you can't do when you're playing a good football team."

The biggest problem was penalties. Nine penalties for 74 yards was excessive, and two more were declined by the Buckeyes. Some penalties came as part of the normal flow of events in a game. He addressed the dumb penalties that must be eliminated.

"The first couple were true freshmen. Not that it makes it any better, but a true freshman in a big game like that, I can imagine what must have been going through their minds.

"The one with A.J. (Jenkins) was a dumb penalty, and A.J. knows it's a dumb penalty. He's a guy that's played three years. Having a motion penalty takes us five yards out of position where we miss a field goal. With that five yards, we probably would have made the field goal.

"The one kickoff penalty was a little bit on me because of what I schemed together. Because of the wind Derek had moved the ball placement a little bit. That put us with another guy on the other side of the center."

It appeared that Whitney Mercilus grabbed the collar of the ball carrier when whistled for a face mask. Rather than say it was a blown call, Zook simply says he needs to understand the rule better.

"We're still trying to figure out what the one face mask is on 85 (Mercilus). I don't know if it is or it isn't. It is because it was called that way. The dumb penalties are gonna be addressed. Some football penalties, you have to understand that some of that happens."

Zook refuses to blame officials as he realizes they are human and subject to occasional mistakes and misperceptions. But he lamented a couple calls that caused him special consternation.

The first one was a personal foul against Jack Ramsey on the Illinois kickoff after it had pulled to within 17-13. The foul call on what appeared to be retaliation gave OSU great field position to begin its game-winning touchdown drive.

"When the film shuts off, he was walking away from it. I don't know what happened. There's no way in my opinion it can't be offsetting if you do anything.

"There was a little mix-up, one of their players hit one of our players. Jack wasn't even involved. He was getting up and, when the film cuts off, the guy was running into Jack. Jack's trying to get away. But those you can't have. You can't have it!"

The other was defensive back Justin Green lining up off sides when the Buckeyes had third and one at the UI 44 yard line on their final drive. The five yard walk off kept the drive alive. Green is a relative novice at the position, but circumstances were unusual nonetheless.

"That's something you have to coach. When you're playing bump man (coverage), and the receiver is off the line of scrimmage...But once again, Justin hasn't been there that long. It's something that happens. Usually the official tells him to back up."

The two safety spots were thin to begin with, so Steve Hull's ankle injury is a big concern. Zook is pleased the problem appears relatively minor.

"Hull will be a day-to-day thing. It's an ankle. It's not broke or anything like that. The swelling's not too bad. It's not as bad as Eddie's (McGee) was. That's the good news."

McGee dressed but saw brief action against Ohio State. Zook hopes he will make steady improvement and be ready for Penn State next week.

"He ran in there for a few plays. Every day he'll get better and better and be more and more of a threat. I would hope he's ready to go full this week."

Cornerback Terry Hawthorne is hopeful of being ready for PSU.

"Once he gets the okay from the doctors he will begin to run. He was running in the pool this morning, and he feels good. You have to do what the doctors say probably."

Fullback/tight end Zach Becker hoped to be ready for the Buckeyes, but he didn't dress. He has needed time to be game ready.

"He's got to be closer. He's another one they'll push as much as they can. He's been cleared by the doctor and the specialist over in Indianapolis who did the work. It's just a matter of when he's ready. He may have a little pain, it's just how much he can handle."

Hugh Thornton was cleared to play last Saturday after legal concerns earlier in the week. Zook says the improvement of his replacement Jack Cornell gives the team a boost.

"I thought Hugh played well, although he didn't play very much. But Jack played extremely well. I'm proud of Jack and the way he played and the way he prepared. I think if we can kind of get into a little rotation here, we can possibly rest Randall (Hunt) a little bit as well."

Jarred Fayson had his best game as an Illini, grabbing 8 passes for 84 yards, throwing a pass for 23 yards to Nathan Scheelhaase, and downing an Anthony Santella punt at the OSU one yard line.

"I thought Jarred had a good game. He stepped up and played in the game like you'd want him to. He made some big catches and also blocked well. Everybody that's a playmaker, we've got to get them making plays. Jarred was the one who stood out in the receiver corps yesterday."

Zook hasn't had much time to study next opponent Penn State as yet, but he knows it will be another tough matchup.

"This is an opportunity for us to continue to grow and get better. Penn State's a pretty good football team. They run the ball extremely well, and they're good defensively. We're traveling, and I think both teams are in a must-win situation. It's gonna be another game like we just played."

Some may not be accustomed to thinking about must-wins for the Illini, but Zook is motivated yearly to succeed in the Big 10 conference.

"We've both got a loss in the Big 10, and you don't want to go two down this early. Maybe must-win is a little strong. They're all must-wins to me."

Illini coaches have been insistent on saying this can be an outstanding team. Maybe the players are beginning to believe it. If so, continued hard work may pay big dividends down the road.

"I'm proud of our guys, I really am. They played hard, and there was an awful lot of good things. We have to continue to play that way. But there's some things we've got to clean up and manage.

"Hopefully they're gonna believe exactly what we've been saying. If we just do the things we're supposed to do, we have a chance to be pretty good."

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