Illinois coach Ron Zook held his weekly Sunday teleconference today. Not surprisingly, he and his players are suffering after the gut-wrenching upset loss at the hands of the Gophers.
"But that's the game. I hope they're feeling low. I feel low. We coaches feel low. This is the time to grow up and play ball. I've got to hope that they do."
Media emphasis was placed on defensive shortcomings. The Illini defense was being praised for its vast improvement until giving up 67 points in three overtimes to Michigan and 38 more yesterday to Minnesota.
Suddenly missed assignments, poor coverage and shoddy tackling make the defense appear vulnerable. The Illini thought they had solved tackling issues from last year, but they have resurfaced as the Illini have become tentative in their play. Zook says they can and will be resolved.
"Absolutely we can solve it. We have to solve it before we play again. To me, tackling is energy, it's playing fast, flying around. We've got to get back to that."
Zook was candid about the role coaching decisions have had on the defense these past two weeks.
"If you go back and look at the last two games in particular, number one we probably put too much emphasis on stopping the run against Michigan. And maybe a little bit more of that this week than we should have done, knowing that (Adam) Weber can throw the football extremely well, he was hot and he was on."
Zook was most concerned about third down breakdowns. The Gophers were successful converting 7 of 15 opportunities on third down, far more than the Illini wanted.
"To me, we didn't play awful on defense except on third downs. That was awful. You can't play third downs like that. We didn't play great, I don't mean to say that. But on third downs we're not getting any pressure, we're not covering. We have to do one or the other.
"Third down to me is a big difference. That's the down you've got to get off the field. You judge your first and second down defense by what third down situations you're in.
"If you're playing third and short or third and medium, you're not playing very good first or second downs. If you're in third and long, you are playing pretty good defense on first and second downs. You have to decide what to do best on third down. To most coaches I've been around, third down is critical."
The Illini defensive secondary played yesterday with minimal substitutions. While Zook said he expects cornerback Terry Hawthorne to play against Northwestern, he was withheld from the Minnesota game due to continuing issues with his surgically repaired foot. Is it possible the secondary is tiring late in the game?
"Yeah, but everybody in the country has that. Usually the secondary is one place you don't substitute a whole bunch. We probably should have gotten Pat (Nixon-Youman) in there a little bit more and rotate him. But for most teams, the secondary is gonna play the whole game."
With issues to resolve and loose ends to tie up, Zook had not yet begun to look at next week's foe Northwestern.
"We've got to get our boat patched up here first. But obviously it will be a critical game."
Wrigley Field is a baseball diamond, not a football field. Marking off football field dimensions produces minimal room in some areas. Are there safety concerns for the players?
"If there were, Coach (Ron) Guenther wouldn't have okayed it. We know the one end zone by home plate is tight, but they're gonna pad it up. You go to some of the fields in this league, and they're tight. Maybe not that tight, but real tight."
Northwestern's quarterback star Dan Persa was injured in their big victory over Iowa Saturday and is out for the rest of the year. This is good news for the beleaguered Illini, but Zook is certain the Wildcats will be ready to play a good game regardless.
"I hate to see anybody get hurt. I heard it was the last play of the game, but I don't know a lot about it. Unfortunately that's college football. The next guy's got to come in. Believe me, they'll be fine."
ESPN's College Gameday will be stationed in Chicago for the game. That, the Wrigley Field venue and the chance to earn bowl eligibility should help motivate the Illini according to Zook.
"I certainly hope so. There's more than just Gameday and playing in Wrigley that should prop you up. This is still a pretty good defense. Obviously the last two shows haven't been real good. But just for your own self-pride, not to mention it's a major rivalry. This game has an awful lot riding on it."