Just like Illinois dug a deeper hole for itself with every loss in 2009, it is building a stairway upward with each success this year. Illini players are upbeat and confident after whipping Penn State in Happy Valley. They are coming together as a team and trusting in each other.
Safety Trulon Henry is pleased how the defense is maturing.
"I think that's one of the most positive things that's happened as a defense as this season goes along. The Missouri game, we didn't really have a feel for one another. We just went out there trying to play.
"But we're coming together as one, as a team. People are trusting the people beside them. If we can trust everybody to be disciplined and do what they're supposed to do, then we're gonna have a good defense."
Major college football is always tough; it is difficult to stay at a peak of emotion and focus through 12 games. Henry knows how tough it is to lose any game and how hard it is to let it go and prepare with confidence for the next game. He also realizes that wins help players become motivated to practice and play even harder.
"I know losing the first game was hard. That was tough, and coming back to prepare for the next two games was even harder. No one wants to lose. When you put in so much hard work and lose, it plays mental mind games on a young person.
"When you win you want to work harder because you want to keep winning. That's always easy to stay up. But when you lose, and then you lose again, I couldn't imagine what they were going through before I was here and they were going through a hard season. Coach prepares us though. He gets us up to the challenge, facing adversity and being able to keep our head up."
Last Saturday was a special day for Henry. But he doesn't want to dwell on the past when there's an important game coming up shortly.
"It was fun, it was happy. It was my birthday. But soon you have to start preparing for Michigan State, and that game goes out your head. I'm trying to get to a bowl game. That would be a dream come true. I'm taking it one game at a time."
Middle linebacker Martez Wilson has led the team in tackles the last two games. The first ever road win at PSU was important to him and the team.
"It meant a lot. We had a chance to go down in history forever. It was a key win that we needed after the loss to O-State. It was a Big 10 game too, so we all wanted to beat the best in the conference. It was a must-win for us."
Wilson sees the defense developing into a formidable unit.
"As a defense, we feel like we're dogs. We swarm to the ball. Our best thing is we're gonna try to hit you. We're not to be denied. Right now we're more of a run-stopping defense, but we can cover as well. Everyone playing their right assignments, everyone's got their eyes on their man. So overall we're improved."
After a year without football due to neck surgery, Wilson is improving weekly.
"I feel great. As the season goes along, I'm feeling mentally stronger, seeing things faster, reacting faster, being able to play more physical without hesitating. I improve the more I watch film."
The Illinois defense was especially tough after muffed punts gave Penn State great field position twice. Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning was pleased but realizes much more is possible.
"I'm not gonna say I'm surprised. We have not played as well at times as we would have liked in the red zone and goal line area. We made a couple plays. It was good to see guys making plays.
"We're still far from what we want. We have plenty of corrections that we can do. Our guys got to look (Monday) at ways we could have been even better. There's three guys on the long pass that had to mess up for that to take place. We've got a lot of things to improve on."
After early season turmoil due to injuries, the Illini defense is becoming more settled weekly. It allows Koenning to do more things with his unit.
"We're getting better where you can throw something out that you ran a couple weeks ago and there's retention. The thing about this package is, we have a 'call library,' and all the calls we've run in the last six years or so against different teams, you can go down through there and pick out things they haven't seen. There's enough different nuances.
"We're still trying to identify our best players and move them around into positions to make plays. And protect guys too. I didn't do as good a job as I needed to on a play the other day. I know it wasn't the scheme as much as guys doing it. But I have to do a better job of coaching.
"You never know when humble pie gets served to you. All of a sudden you look and it's there. So you can never get too confident; respect and fear all. You need to understand that any day you can get it handed to you. We've just got to keep an edge and do the best we can. I don't know that we can work any harder than we're working right now. The kids are doing their part too."
Koenning agrees the increased belief by defenders allows for improved play.
"Winning goes a long way in that belief, no question about that. Football is just a part of it. Being a part of a team, whether you're a starter or a backup, special teams or even a scout guy, your role is critically important.
"Having a good attitude day to day is tantamount to our success. I think that's part of what's going on right now. The players are coaching themselves, and the leadership in the team is really developing well."
That same cycle of confidence-building is occurring on offense also. Rookie quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had his best game as an Illini last Saturday. He is improving each week. More importantly, he is relaxing as he matures into the position.
"Yeah, I feel like you gain confidence the more you play. Even with playing my first road game, I still felt a lot of confidence in our game plan and what we were able to do.
"Really, in the games we lost, I felt confident in our game plan. Our coaches came up with great game plans. There were times we kind of lagged at certain times and didn't push the tempo, push the pace. I think that was the biggest difference in this game.
"In every quarter we were moving the ball and finding ways to put points on the board. The defense did the same thing. We sustained that tempo and momentum throughout the course of the game. We finally were making the plays that were important at critical times."
Scheelhaase has said repeatedly he is confident, including preseason. But with each week that passes, subtleties emerge to give him even more focus and awareness than he had earlier.
"Right. Coach (Ron) Zook always tells me you can't buy experience, and Coach (Paul) Petrino says the same thing. Especially with a new offense, it's the 5th or 6th week where the offense really gets the ball rolling, getting comfortable and playing a step faster, making the reads faster, things like that.
"Everyone is confident in what they're doing. We're playing real fast out there, and the offensive line did a great job of playing tough all game. That's when we have good games."
Teams often have emotional letdowns after celebrating big victories. Scheelhaase thinks the Illini are less susceptible to that than some teams.
"I don't think we do as much because we're still the underdog. We're still looked at as a team not picked to win the next game or be a top team in the Big 10. We look at it as another challenge, another opportunity to prove people wrong. I don't feel any kind of letdown."
Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins was uplifted by the result last week, but he also speaks of sustaining quality play throughout the season.
"It was good. It feels good going into a different environment like that and winning. It was our first away game, so taking no lip off the fans feels real good. It shows we are good, we've just got to keep on doing it. Keep on preparing but don't get conceited. Just keep working hard."
Offensive coordinator Petrino had perhaps his best play-calling game of his brief Illini career against Penn State. He downplayed his role in the win.
"It was just one of those days where you felt like you had a good ryhthm going. We were real good on first down, and it was a fun day calling plays."
Little by little, the Illini offense is showing more versatility by utilizing more of its personnel. Petrino wants to expand that further.
"Yeah, you want to make them defend the whole field, stop all your playmakers, stop the run and the pass. We had a lot of different formations and personnel groups last week, and I think that we'll continue to do that.
"We've just got to keep working hard. I think as our offense progresses and everyone understands it, then the ball will be spread around a little better."
Petrino has been utilizing a modified shotgun formation called the "Pistol," where the quarterback stands apart from the center but in front of a running back. He explains the value of the formation.
"Right now it's a good way for us to run option and play-action. If you just get in a gun, they just sit there in three technique and shade when the back's offset. If you stick them behind the quarterback, they don't know that. It helps you with a little bit of deception."
Coach Zook is obviously pleased, and perhaps relieved, at the progress his team is making. But he says there is still much more work to do.
"One of the first things I heard in the locker room, I'm not sure who said it, but we have to prepare the same way that we've prepared the last couple weeks. I think the last two games we've played pretty well, one of them we didn't win and one of them we did. We just have to continue to do the same thing."