Illini Continue To Show Improvement--Zook

The Fighting Illini football team embarrassed the Penn State Nittany Lions on national television yesterday, giving credibility to the notion it is much improved this season. Illini players have been confident all along, but success strengthens the commitment to excellence. Head coach Ron Zook discussed the PSU result as his team prepares for another battle next week.

Illinois coach Ron Zook spoke with media on his weekly Sunday teleconference about how his players have put forth great effort both in practice and games. It appears to be paying off as the Illini whipped proud Penn State 33-13 in Happy Valley.

"We've continued that the last few weeks. We had the same kind of effort the week before. One of the things I stressed was that we had to play 60 minutes. The last couple times we played at Penn State we hadn't played 60 minutes. (This time) I thought they did."

Illini confidence has been strong all year, but it was enhanced further with this important victory. Zook believes that important intangible can be sustained through the rest of the schedule.

"First of all, they're seeing the things we've been coaching them to do is paying off. I think they're playing as a football team, they're playing together, they're playing as one. They care about each other. It's a lot better feeling in that locker room after the game.

"Hopefully it will carry over a lot. We've been telling them all year that we're good enough if you do the things you're coached to do and play the way you're capable of playing that you can play with anybody. We played the #1 team in the nation a couple weeks ago pretty well, and we have gone forward and keep building on that.

"I've never sensed any negativity with our football team. It's going in the right direction. We're in pretty good shape with injuries. They're all excited about where we are. They're excited about the opportunity to continue to go out and play."

Zook praised both his players and coaches for the turnaround this year.

"Number one, you see the players are buying into the things we're trying to accomplish on both offense and defense. I think that's a tribute to the kind of kids we have here. I think also the coaches are doing a great job in implementing the systems. It's really been a lot of fun.

"The biggest thing is demanding we do the things we're supposed to do. It's the same players we had last year in many respects, but now the whole complete attitude is different. You've got to give credit to the new coaches, and you've got to give credit to the players as well."

Running backs Jason Ford and Troy Pollard complimented starter Mikel Leshoure yesterday. Zook likes what he sees from the running game.

"You can't have too many good running backs. Those guys take a pounding. Absolutely, Mikel's having a great year, and we're really excited. And the last couple weeks, we've seen that Jason (Ford) is pretty good too. Jason has been running extremely well.

"And I thought Troy did a great job yesterday. When you've got three guys you know you can win with, then it takes a little pressure of of them and you can keep them fresh. We're very pleased with all three of them."

The Illini appear to be getting healthier. Cornerback Terry Hawthorne saw his first action at Penn State. Zook must bring him along slowly as he gets back in football shape after having a screw inserted in his foot. He is probably a week or two away from being used as a kick returner.

"Hopefully he will be ready to go. He played 10-12 plays yesterday. You don't want to work him in too fast, to see how he is. Right now, it will be just the secondary."

Zach Becker has been slow to get into playing shape after a similar injury, but he may finally be ready for Michigan State.

"I would hope so. He's been cleared by the doctors for a couple weeks. It's just a matter of how much he can take, so it will kind of be up to Zach. I hope he can go. This is one of those games we need everybody."

Zook says Eddie McGee is nearly back to full health.

"Eddie played 20-some plays. He may not be 100%, but he's pretty close. He's pretty much back to normal I believe."

Jack Ramsey fumbled the opening kickoff and then muffed two punts yesterday. This was a complete reversal of his normal play. Will he keep his punt return job?

"A week ago Jack was great. He was catching with them in his face, and he hadn't had any issue. It might have shook him up when he fumbled the opening kickoff. That might have been part of it. But last night he was fine. We'll just have to go back to work and see."

Michigan State is the next major obstacle for the Illini. Zook hasn't had much time to evaluate them yet, but he knows they earned their unbeaten status.

"My initial thought is it's going to be a battle. Like the game we just played, like the game we played last week, it's gonna be a physical game.

"We're going in there with the idea we're gonna do everything we can to win. There's no reason why we shouldn't believe we have an opportunity to (win). But we have to do it. We have to take care of the football. We have to be smart and not give up big plays, and tackle well. It's a good football team we're getting ready to play."

Is it more difficult for the team playing two straight road trips?

"No, I don't think so. The fans are right on top of you, there's not enough room on the sideline, the locker room is awful. But like going to Penn State, these guys will love playing up there. I think it will be exactly the same type of atmosphere, maybe even more so."

Zook is following the old adage to take one game at a time and not pass judgment on the team prematurely or limit what is possible. Like Kenny Rogers sang, "There'll be time enough for counting when the day is done."

"Evaluations come after the season. Right now, we just want to continue to get better and improve in all areas. The offense is gonna get better and better and getting ready to take off. Yesterday was our best performance offensively. And defensively the same thing. We'll continue to make things happen. Maybe at the end of the year I'll be able to look back at that."

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