Illini Focus On Defense During NW Practices

The Fighting Illini football team has been working hard to correct the malaise that has infected its defensive play the last two weeks. The Illini are mystified by the behavioral change and are doing some soul-searching to find solutions. Meanwhile, the Illini offense continues to build confidence and momentum as the season progresses.

Illinois defensive coaches and players have been working overtime to figure out what has changed a highly productive unit into one that has given up 105 points the last two weeks. For Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning, the trend has been a reversal of what he usually sees in a season.

"This is the first time in my memory I had a defense that hadn't gotten better. Every year I can remember back, it seemed like we finished strong."

Koenning says head coach Ron Zook has led the effort to find solutions.

"Coach has been working tirelessly to figure out that, whatever happened the week of Michigan, we didn't shake it completely last week. They (Minnesota) got right at their average yards-wise, and they had some short fields. Had we not given up that last drive or made a play, we would have held them under their average.

"But we still can play a lot better than we played. 'Average' isn't in our language. We're trying to be better than that."

Koenning has noticed one problem in particular.

"We're kind of trying to focus on us and get our speed of play increased. That's the big thing we've got to get going. We don't seem to be playing as fast as we once did.

"We pointed out plays where they played at high speed and plays where they didn't. We've just got to make them focus on getting back to not taking things for granted.

"I told them a couple stories from my experiences where I'd taken things for granted that cost me dearly. We can't do that. We have to pay attention to detail. That's focus, something we seem to have lost a little bit of. We've got to get it back."

Safety Trulon Henry concurs. He says film study points out the difference clearly.

"Me and Tavon (Wilson) were watching some film from the Indiana game. It seemed like a different team out there, a different attitude. Our energy, the way we were doing things back then and how we changed. You can see the difference. It wasn't technique, it was just energy. People were giving it their all."

Henry says defensive players are angry with how they have been playing.

"Yeah, it's frustrating. You know what we're capable of, you know the way we've been playing all year. And then towards the end of the season it's a meltdown. I don't know what it is."

How do you get the swagger back?

"I wish I knew the answer to that. Then I could just press a button and get it back. We're gonna brainstorm and see what we can come up with as a unit. We have to get it back."

Cornerback Justin Green is no more certain than Henry except to acknowledge a need to play more assertively.

"Maybe we've had our minds on other things, maybe not as focused as we should be. We haven't been taking care of our responsibilities as well. We've got to get back to what we do best, hustling and taking care of our assignments. Just getting back to the basics.

"The attitude of the team is good. We were a little down after the loss, but we're all in high spirits. I think we can work past that, and I think things will get better for us in the future."

Like the others, linebacker Martez Wilson can only speculate as to the root cause of the problem. But he knows what he plans to do, and he hopes others will follow his lead.

"Michigan kind of shot down some people's confidence. We've got to get back in the film room. I'm not saying that we wasn't, but even more. You can never get too much.

"Everybody on defense has to get back to swarming, attacking. We can't slack off because defense wins games. So I think if we get back to playing with excitement and emotion, making plays, we'll be all right."

Zook confirmed that cornerback Terry Hawthorne will be able to play this week. He sat against the Gophers, but a new brace has been created to help take pressure off the painful area in his foot. Green confirms a lack of depth is tiring for the secondary, especially in the fourth quarter, so having Hawthorne back is good.

"It definitely helps. It gives us a whole lot more depth. It gives us some rest so we can be a little more mistake-free. It just helps the team overall. Travon (Bellamy) and I were out there the whole time last week. It was a little bit tougher. We did what we could to make up for the slack."

The Illini need to play inspired defense Saturday against a 7-3 Northwestern team. Their star quarterback won't play due to injury, and their backup has minimal experience. Koenning was asked whether the Illini might take the Wildcat offense lightly under this circumstance.

"They better not. I couldn't believe we didn't play the game last week with the tenacity and fire and electricity that I hoped we would, and we worked so hard to get them to do. I don't think there's any coach in America that's got the exact answers."

Short range solutions are limited. In the long run, Koenning knows what must be done.

"The thing we need to do here is build depth so that if somebody's not playing up to their ability, you put somebody else in. The only sure-fire way of getting a group to play at the speed you want them to is to have depth and accountability because they want playing time. Until we can do that, we'll just have to keep trying to coax them into it."

Illinois fans are angry the Illini have not yet become bowl eligible, and losing to a 1-9 team is especially frustrating for them. But it is not always easy to pinpoint blame for problems. Zook believes the Illini will right the ship.

"They are the same coaches, the same guys that played in those first eight games. They're still a good defense, they're still good coaches and they're still going to play the way they are capable of playing. I believe that."

Offensively, the Illini continue to make progress as the year goes on. Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino sees an upward spiral despite some inconsistencies last Saturday.

"The kids see themselves getting better each week on offense, so our confidence is pretty high right now. The last two games, we needed to make one more play. But we played better than in the games leading up to that."

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has played well as a redshirt freshman, and he continues to be a spokesman for the offense. The whole team suffers with a loss, and the offense knows everyone is to blame for it. It makes them want to work harder.

"We've all seen what we can do when we work together and play the way we can. We just know we have to put it together. It's been stressed this week we have to prepare and practice as hard as we can."

There is much at stake these last two games. The Illini still need a victory to become bowl eligible. And they need to win back unhappy fans. To play their best, the Illini need to play relaxed. Petrino was asked how players can be relaxed when so much rides on the outcome of the upcoming game against Northwestern.

"If you prepare hard and practice hard, you play with confidence. I think that's something we've done the last four weeks. You expect to do good, and you expect things to happen. If you see yourself making plays in practice you think they're gonna happen in the game.

"More so than being relaxed, you need to play with confidence and have a little edge to you. I've never been relaxed my whole life. You need to have a little edge to you, a little fire and just play with confidence."

Zook was asked if a win Saturday would appease the fans.

"I would hope so. I don't blame them, we all want the program to be where it's supposed to be, and I'll be the first to say that.

"The first thing I said is what's happened happened, there's no use feeling sorry for ourselves, no use blaming or pointing fingers, let's go to work. It's what the Illini Nation deserves and what the Illini Nation wants, and I understand that. I don't have any problem with that."

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