Illini Enjoy Bye Week, Get Extra Practice

There is still a buzz about what the Illini football team accomplished at Wrigley Field against Northwestern 11 days after the event. The way the victory was accomplished while gaining bowl eligibility gives the team new momentum as it prepares for Fresno State. A few days off has also helped freshen mind and body.

The Illinois football team accomplished several goals against Northwestern Saturday before last. Players and coaches alike still like reflecting on that big victory. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino loved seeing his players pound the Wildcats with a monster rushing attack. He found play-calling a breeze.

"It's always fun when things work out like that. The other assistant coaches did a great job getting the guys to play hard, and the players played tough and physical. Usually when you do that, you have a chance for things to work. They did, we executed well, and it was a good game.

"I think we had a good plan. I think most weeks you have a good plan, it's usually about executing it. We had a good plan, the kids executed it well, and we just kept doing it and pounding them. It's always fun when you just physically beat up someone like that."

Center Graham Pocic had a hand in creating holes for Mikel Leshoure, Jason Ford and Nathan Scheelhaase to run through. The Cub fan enjoyed his day at Wrigley Field.

"It was awesome. I haven't had 500 yards since high school. It was pretty cool watching Mikel run over their guys. They couldn't tackle him. And it was cool to have it happen up in Chicago with all the fans there in Wrigley. We were putting him one-on-one with the safeties and linebackers, and he was just beating them."

Leshoure was eager to praise his teammates for his record-breaking 330 yard effort and surprised by the coincidence his birthday is 3/30. But he couldn't hide the thrill of being named first team All-Big 10.

"It feels good. All that hard work pays off. I didn't have too many personal goals going into the season. But working hard every week shows on the field, and people see it. I'm glad to be a part of that. All-Big 10 was definitely something I wanted to accomplish."

While the Illinois defense gave up a couple big plays, for the most part it reverted to the swarming, passionate group that impressed earlier in the season. Senior linebacker Nathan Bussey felt the defense got it's stinger back after a couple sour games.

"I feel like we did get some of that back. The momentum came right when we needed it. The game against Northwestern brought us back to realizing we are a great defense."

The pressure to attain bowl eligibility was intense and became magnified with losses to Michigan and Minnesota. One of numerous benefits of bowl eligibility is the more relaxed play possible once the weight of that struggle is removed according to linebacker Martez Wilson, who was named 1st team All-Big 10 by the media and 2nd team by the coaches.

"Yeah, big weight. Coming out losing two seasons in a row consecutively. Now we're bowl eligible and have a lot of people healthy. This is what we've worked for, get a chance for another game and be happy."

Scheelhaase agrees.

"The thing you worry about is people thinking about that sixth win and not playing as loose. I believe we're loose now getting that sixth win, getting more confidence. It's a momentum builder. You don't ever want to play with fear."

The Illini had some time off before beginning preparations for Fresno State Thanksgiving evening. The bye week came at a good time after 8 straight rugged Big 10 games.

"It's always good to get some time off," Scheelhaase acknowledges. "You get extra time to prepare and to heal up from the little things you pick up during the season. It's good for people's bodies.

"For Mikel especially, after he had a game where he carried the ball 33 times, you're feeling it a little bit. I think he'll be back feeling really good going into this next game. I think everybody's feeling pretty good mentally and physically going into this game."

Bussey concurs.

"The bye week was a nice little break. Four days off to get our bodies recuperating. Our team is looking pretty good right now after those four days off."

Head coach Ron Zook understood the importance of giving his players free time.

"I think the break probably came at a perfect time. I told them after the Northwestern game, just forget about football for a couple three days and come back ready to go to work. And they've done that. They've come back and we've had great practices. It's going to take that. We have to continue to do the same things and get prepared."

The Fresno State game is Friday night, one day earlier than usual. Illini normal game week preparations began Sunday, so they had two extra days to get back into a practice routine, improve themselves and add some wrinkles for FSU.

"Everybody is getting back in condition, getting back in running form," Wilson states. "Just wanted to get the football mentality back in their heads. We've got one more game. We can't get in the mindset that we can just relax. That's a big win for us as well."

Petrino saw it as an opportunity to add plays for Fresno.

"You can put in your formations a little different. You can concentrate on a couple formations each day. We put in three or four formations each day. It should help you execution-wise because you can learn everything a lot more than you can do in a normal week."

Scheelhaase echoes his coach's thoughts.

"With as much time as Coach Petrino likes to spend preparing for teams, you get two weeks and he really loves it. We have more time to learn the things he wants us to learn. We put in some different formations and reads."

Illinois prepared for Fresno State, but players and coaches alike also realize the potential for a great season next year and hope to use this week and the weeks leading up to a bowl game as a stepping stone for next year.

"Coach Petrino says we have a lot to look forward to next year," junior receiver A.J. Jenkins reminds. "We have 8 home games and four away games, so we can start something special starting right now. It's been a good three years. I hope to be playing on January first again next year."

Scheelhaase realizes the lessons he's learned this year will make him a better quarterback and the offense a more proficient unit in the future.

"If you look at all of our games, nobody's really put a stop to what we've done or what we've tried to do as an offense. It's been us making mistakes. When we're not making mistakes and having a lot of guys flying around, playing their butts off and knowing what they're doing, we're tough to stop. Coach Petrino has told us that from the start, and I think we're finally starting to realize it."

Wilson will no doubt consider his pro options after the season. But he sounds like someone who wouldn't mind returning for his redshirt season.

"Next year will be a lot better. Our mental toughness will be stronger. You're just having fun when you just come in. After a couple years, then you're really playing. You're a man and have your strength, and you know yourself as a person. Now you know you can do it again."

After two down years, the Illini are feeling good about themselves. From all indications, that has led to good practices leading up to the Fresno State game.

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