The Illinois football team has three games to play, but it is the final home game for thirteen seniors. Travon Bellamy, Nathan Bussey, Jarred Fayson, Antonio Gully, Aaron Gress, Randall Hunt, Anterio Jackson, Chris James, Dustin Jefferson, Eddie McGee, Clay Nurse, Ryan Palmer and Anthony Santella will have their last opportunity to play for their home fans.
While small in number, these players have been the foundation for the improvement of the Illini football team since Ron Zook's hiring. He admires all they've done for the University.
"They are excited about playing. This is a big day for them and gives us an opportunity to go 5-1 at home, which I think is important for our fans and our seniors. We look forward to the challenge. They know they have to play well and I feel very, very confident that we will."
Zook reminds how this group has been through the best of times and worst of times.
"They have been to the top of the mountain and back down and are trying to climb back up there again. I think they have done an incredible job. Never has this group been anything but positive and helpful.
"I think they have meant a lot more to this program than what people think; maybe people down the road will realize what they did mean. This is really the first time we have had a bunch of fifth-year guys. They have kind of been through it all, they've been through the good and the bad, and kind of been the glue to the whole thing."
These 13 seniors will try to lead Illinois to bowl eligibility by defeating the visiting Minnesota Gophers Saturday. But before the Illini can think about their opponent, they must resolve defensive deficiencies that showed up at Michigan last week. To some, the defense looked like the one that struggled throughout the 2009 season.
Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning wasn't here last year, so it was unexpected.
"I know they were somewhere I hadn't seen them before. It was doubly shocking to me. We missed assigments, we lost our coverage, we didn't tackle."
Signs of a problem began to emerge in practices leading to the UM game. Junior safety Trulon Henry said there was no 'eye-of-the-tiger' look among defenders during last week's practices. Koenning agreed.
"It wasn't there Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, and I addressed it every day. I didn't address it vehemently enough."
Zook explains how much a lack of focus can impact a game.
"You don't just become a bad tackling team. It's energy, it's all those things that kind of enter into it. They played at a pretty high level the last few weeks. That's not the right offensive football team to have a little bit of a lull (against), but we did. We need to regroup and go back to it."
If Koenning let up on his players the last couple weeks, he no doubt reminded everyone what he expects of them this week.
"We've got to get back whatever we haven't been doing. I've not been driving them as hard as I needed to drive them. We'll probably go back to doing that a little bit more."
Confidence was shattered last week, and that must be rekindled. Koenning has been impressed with Zook's approach this week.
"Coach Zook's really doing a good job. He's been really working hard to get them back. I think he's had a good approach towards it. You've got to hold them accountable obviously. That was pretty much a debacle on defense."
Zook believes his defensive players will bounce back. He thinks the coaching staff may have hurt their chances by overemphasizing Michigan's ability on offense.
"I think probably more than anything, they're embarrassed. I texted most of them on Saturday night and most of them texted me back, and they put it behind them and learned from it and we'll go from there.
"Sometimes as a coaching staff, maybe at times we've got them thinking too much, and they were thinking too much. Those guys wanted to do well. Trust me, they knew that was a pretty good offense, the fourth-leading offense in the country, and they wanted to try to prove a point. Maybe we overemphasized that rather than taking care of ourselves and making sure we were doing what we're supposed to do."
The Illinois defense can be good again, but it must put out maximum effort for 60 minutes according to Koenning.
"Their fear is that it's there. We can't ever go back to there again. With this group, we've got to be full throttle or we're what you saw Saturday. We're all or nothing."
Henry admitted the Illini needed to put the Michigan game behind them. It was a painful experience that might have stuck in their craw for a long time. Fortunately, Monday's practice solved the problem.
"After practice (Monday), the emotions from the Michigan game were out the door. It actually took physically going through practice and getting out there competing again to really feel as though that game was behind us."
Koenning is leery of Minnesota's offense.
"You watch them against anybody. They're very effective on offense with a great plan. It's gonna take all week. We've got to win the game. I don't think there's anybody on the team that doesn't feel we've got to play lights out."
Zook says quarterback Adam Weber and other Gopher skill players pose a major challenge for the Illini defense.
"They have a quarterback that's capable of doing unbelievable things. They have two big receivers catching the football. They're almost trying to do 50/50. And that causes you some issues. If the defense knows what you are trying to do, they can gang up and make you go the other way.
"It's so important that we take care of us because this team can very easily beat anybody on any given day if we're not ready to play."
Weber is unafraid of testing secondaries. Henry and the other defensive backs are aware of his ability. And they assume Minnesota has game-planned in part to exploit weaknesses exposed at Michigan last week.
"Offensively, I don't take them lightly at all," Henry says. "They throw the ball pretty deep down the field. If you take them lightly, you can get embarrassed again."
Minnesota's defense has given up plenty of yards and points, but statistics do not necessarily reflect the talent at it's disposal according to Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino.
"They're big up front. The guys inside are big and strong. They've got a real good middle linebacker. They've got some good players, so we've got to get ready for them."
Center Graham Pocic has to block Minnesota's defensive linemen. He can attest to their strength.
"They're big guys. Number 68 (Jewhan Edwards) is 6'-2", 330. He's a strong guy and plays his gap. They've got a couple good defensive ends. One is probably the best player on the d-line."
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase knows he must be at the top of his game. Getting out to a big early lead will be helpful.
"As much as they've been through this year, they've got some real talented players. Up front they're pretty talented. They play hard, they play aggressively.
"They've been in some games this year, especially early in the game, where they've fought hard against some tough teams and really done some very good things. Kind of like Purdue, they do send some overload blitzes you have to be aware of. If you run a bad play into that blitz, you're gonna have big negative yards.
"We've got to do a good job of executing early so we don't have to see them playing intense throughout the game."
Fayson and the other Illini receivers all comment about cornerback Troy Stoudermire.
"They have a lot of athletes back there who can run around. I know #11 (Stoudermire), an ex-receiver moved to corner, is competitive. If we work hard in practice and keep doing it on Saturday, we'll be all right. We still have a lot to play for."
Pocic wants to reward the seniors for their hard work and leadership.
"It's important to send the seniors out great, and it starts with getting that sixth win. We're taking it one game at a time. You want your seniors to go out as winners. It starts this week."
Scheelhaase feels the same way.
"We're not focused on their record. There's a lot we can look forward to this week. Obviously with the seniors having their last home game, that's the biggest thing. It is a game that could get us bowl eligible.
"With that, being our last home game of the year, the last chance to play in front of our home crowd. Getting that momentum back after taking a little hit last week. I think there's a lot that goes into it. We're looking forward to what we can do on Saturday."