Everyone who examined the Illinois football schedule going into the season knew the toughest part would be the three game stretch of games with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State. In Sunday's teleconference, Ron Zook was asked if the Illini can now exhale as they look to the reminder of the 2010 season.
"We came back and had a meeting last night. I don't feel like we've done anything to exhale. I think we've made improvements in all areas, but I think they also understand we have a long way to go. We've got to continue to worry about us getting better. There's enough leadership on this team, they know there's no chance to exhale."
The Illinois defense continues to get stronger as the season rolls along, but the offense appeared to take a step back against MSU. In particular, redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase had problems coping with Spartan pressure and came out of the game late after getting the wind knocked out of him. Zook was pleased there was no lingering health problem.
"It was at the end of the game yesterday, and it didn't make sense to put him back in there. They do that concussion test, but he was actually higher than he was on his baseline test. He's okay."
Scheelhaase is having ups and downs typical of a rookie quarterback. He needed help from his teammates yesterday that didn't materialize.
"I think the thing about Nathan is, he's a guy that understands the position. This is not the first game he's struggled a little bit. And it's not all his fault; it's a team effort. We had plenty of chances to have some guys do some things and make some plays, and we didn't."
Some quarterbacks become discouraged when problems arise. Not Scheelhaase.
"I think that's the type of person Nathan is. Nathan is a half-full type person. He loves to compete, and he loves the next opportunity. That's why we're all gonna see, before this thing is all said and done, that Nathan is about as good a quarterback as there is."
Offensive guard Jack Cornell left the game with what was considered a strain of the Medial Collateral Ligament in his knee. Trainer Nick Ritchey gave Zook good news on Cornell's health.
"Nick said he'll probably practice tomorrow. He's had an MCL (strain) before, and it's very low-grade. A tweak I guess you'd say."
That is good news as Cornell appears to have replaced Randall Hunt in the starting lineup.
"Randall only played 9 plays in the Penn State game. The other two guys played extremely well. Because of that, we felt it was important to start Jack. It helps all of them if they can stay fresh."
With Mikel Leshoure getting the bulk of running back carries, how is he handling the pounding?
"I think he's handling it well. I don't think he played quite the game he played in the Penn State game. I thought the Penn State game was his best game since he's been at the University of Illinois. We need him to play like that all the time.
"He was beat up a little bit probably, but I don't think he ran with the same type of intensity. It's hard to get that type of intensity week in and week out against good football teams. He ran pretty well against Ohio State, he ran great against Penn State, and he ran pretty well yesterday.
"If he wants to be the type of back we all think he can be, he's gonna have to play like that all the time. But he will. He's working hard in practice and done all we've asked him to do. That's just part of being a running back.
"We've got to get those running backs playing, particularly when we're playing a defense as good as Michigan State. They have to be able to play at the same level they played last week."
Zook said "frustrated" wasn't the right word, but the Illini offense is tired of leaving possibilities on the field. He says they are not losing confidence.
"There were about four plays in that game that could have turned the game around on the offense. What we have to do is make those plays. And we will. More than lacking confidence, they understand how close they are. We've just got to relax and keep doing the things we're doing."
Defense wasn't the problem yesterday. Illinois is playing its best defense in several years, holding opponents below their yardage averages and taking the fight to talented offenses. In particular, Corey Liuget was a force at defensive tackle. Did he play as well as it seemed?
"Yeah he did, he really did. I'm impressed with Corey. I thought he had an all-around game. He made tackles everywhere and was physical on the line of scrimmage. They had their hands full trying to block him."
Michigan State may be the best team in the Big 10 this season, and that's saying something. Ohio State was ranked number one in the country before Wisconsin knocked them off last night. Putting the MSU game to bed, Zook gave credit to the Spartans.
"To me, Michigan State is a pretty good team. Wisconsin played extremely well (against OSU). This is the same team that got beat by Michigan State. What's that tell you about Michigan State?"
Up next for the Illini is a Homecoming date with Indiana. Before anyone thinks this will be an easy game, Zook reminds about Hoosier quarterback Ben Chappell.
"He's a good player. I was just looking at his stats; (hitting) 68.7% (of his passes), averaging 309 yards a game, has only thrown three interceptions. Yeah, he's pretty good."
There's no rest for the weary in the rugged Big 10 Conference.