The Illinois football team is on an upward spiral, and fans and media alike are taking notice. The defense has completely reversed it's fortunes in a year, and head coach Ron Zook was asked what attracted him to new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.
"What impressed was his track record, the type of person he was. I talked to coaches that knew him and worked with him. He's demanding, he cares about the kids. He's about trying to help them reach their goals.
"He keeps it interesting. They work hard; there's not a lot of time where they can relax. They have to study it. Those guys are playing together, everyone has bought into what the coaches are demanding them to do."
The offense is also making progress. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase hit 11 receivers, completing 16 of 20 tosses against Purdue Saturday. Zook was asked if that was a sign of Scheelhaase's progression.
"I think so. I think the game is slowing down for him a little bit. It's isn't where it's gonna be. I think the coaches are doing a great job of taking as much pressure off of Nathan as they can.
"Nathan's doing the things necessary to improve at a fast rate. He really works at learning from his mistakes. The more he plays, the more he does, the more he sees, the more it's gonna become a reaction and he'll just do it. That's why he's spreading the ball around a little bit."
The receivers are helping. Besides the starters, three freshmen saw extensive action. Zook likes how the position is developing depth.
"Yeah, I think we've played a bunch of those freshman receivers, and I think they're gonna be pretty good players. They're getting better. And Fred Sykes had a big day yesterday. A.J. (Jenkins) had a chance to have a big, big day if he'd caught the two that were a little bit high on him."
Illini offensive coaches are adding new wrinkles every week. Part of it is to take advantage of Scheelhaase's development.
"You do that as you go along. It's not what the coaches know, it's what the players can perform. I think the coaches are doing a great job of knowing that. There are things you'd like to try on both sides of the ball, but maybe somebody on that offensive or defensive team will not be successful doing it. It may be a great idea, but it's probably not gonna be productive."
Against Purdue, the Illini tried a direct snap to Mikel Leshoure, who handed off to Eddie McGee, who threw downfield. It was unsuccessful, but it pleased the fans and gave future opponents something else to ponder. Do you have more surprises up your sleeve?
"I hope so. You watch an awful lot of tape on your opponent, and there are things that come up as you watch tape. What would this do? One thing leads to another. Of course, before you put it to paper you have to be sure all 11 guys can perform it to the best of their ability."
Scheelhaase changed many protections at the line Saturday, helping him to avoid Purdue pressure. Zook said freshman Miles Osei might not be ready for that and decided not to play him late in the game.
"We talked about that, we really did. We try to substitute as much as we can. They kept blitzing, and we didn't want to take a chance of getting Miles hurt or have something bad happen to him."
Kicker Derek Dimke said after the game that he had tried to hit Purdue up-man Joe Holland on the kickoff after the UI's first score because he had his back turned to the play. The ball bounced back into the waiting arms of Nathan Bussey. Zook hopes Dimke was teasing.
"I need to talk to Derek if he thinks it was intentional. That would be hard to do, number one. And number two, if he is trying to do that and it hit somebody and they got on the ball right there, we'll have some issues."
Things have been going the Illini's way recently, and that was just one of several examples Saturday.
"The ball bounced right for us. The one punt that they tried hit Tavon (Wilson). For Tavon to spin around and get the ball, we were getting some breaks."
Right after the game, Purdue coach Danny Hope held onto Zook's hand after shaking it. Most interpreted it as a sign Hope was mad about Illinois passing for its last touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Zook didn't remember it that way.
"That's not what we were thinking about. When I talked to Danny after the game, everything was complimentary. About what we'd done, how the players were getting better. So that's all news to me."
"They should be ready to go. I think we came out of it in great shape."
At first, Zook thought Fayson had played against Purdue.
"His leg is bothering him a little bit. It's a hamstring, but it's not a serious thing. It's not anything that's gonna keep him out any more."
Linebacker Ian Thomas appeared to sprain his ankle against Purdue but reentered later. Zook was happy freshman sub Jonathan Brown could get more experience. Brown ended tied for the team lead with 8 tackles.
"Today he (Thomas) was a little sore, but he won't miss any practice. He would have played more, but Jonathan Brown needs experience as well. He's getting better, and it gives us a little more depth there. The more he plays, the better he gets."
Zook was able to watch Michigan play Penn State Saturday evening, and he's plenty concerned about the upcoming matchup despite UM's loss.
"It's gonna be the same kind of effort it took when we played Penn State, Michigan State, and Ohio State. Our guys are gonna have to do the work this week to get ready for it. This is a critical game for us. We have to be ready to play."
The Illini have beaten the Wolverines twice in a row, a rarity for them. Illinois hasn't won more than two games consecutively from UM since it won four straight from 1950-1953. Winning the last two provides some benefit for the upcoming game.
"They're not scared of Michigan, but they have a very strong respect for Michigan. It's been a long, long time since Illinois has beaten Michigan three times in a row."
The Illini received a few votes in this week's coaches poll. Zook will not share his votes until the end of the season. Only then will the poll will be an accurate reflection of the quality of this Illini outfit.
"It's nice to be ranked at the end. That's when it counts. That means we continued to improve. I try to be objective. We really haven't proven anything yet. We've made a lot of progress, but I think we need to continue to make progress."