Fighting Illini Ready For Friday Fresno Game

The Fighting Illini football team flies to California Thursday to take on Fresno State in a Friday night game. Both teams are bowl eligible but seek an extra win to pad bowl resumes. The Bulldogs have most of their starters back from their win at Memorial Stadium in 2009, so the Illini must take the game seriously to return with a victory.

Illinois coach Ron Zook has great respect for FSU coach Pat Hill and his Bulldogs.

"Our goal is a simple one: it's to play the best game that we've played all year. And it's going to take that. It's a physically tough team. When you watch them at home they play that way, and our guys understand that we are going to have to go out there and play our best game.

"They like to play, and Pat will have them ready to go. I'm sure it means something to him; they have a chance to win eight games, so it's a big game. It's a big game for both programs, no question."

Fresno's offense is potent and filled with experience according to Zook.

"They've got the whole offensive line back, the quarterback's back. They've got two receivers that I'm very impressed with. You felt like losing that running back (Ryan Mathews), they may not be quite as good. But they are doing the same things. They've got a couple guys that aren't that far off from where they were last year.

"They went up and down the field on us last year. It's really important that our defense plays the way they're capable."

Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning describes the Bulldog offense in similar terms.

"They have the same offensive line. They have an effective running back; he's extremely quick. I think their receivers may be the strength of their offense.

"It's gonna take our very best effort to keep us in the game. I don't think we can go about it any other way. I'm not being afraid, intimidated or anything else. That's the reality. It is what it is. We've got to try to prepare our guys to play their best game. If we don't, then we're gonna limit our chances to win. We've just got to play hard and fast and not make any mental mistakes because there's not any room for error."

It is difficult to prepare for the Fresno offense according to Koenning.

"Coach Hill's got a really good scheme; they've got a lot of different packages they go to. It's gonna be impossible for our guys to be ready for all the different things they might see. We'll just do the best we can."

Senior linebacker Nathan Bussey realizes the difficulty of the task at hand.

"All teams are versatile in what they do, and we have to be prepared for what they're gonna give us, withstand the onslaught."

Last year's game was a shootout. Zook would like to prevent a repeat.

"Obviously it's going to be important that we slow them down and that our offense continues to do the same things that they've done."

FSU's defense has strengths as well according to offensive coordinator Paul Petrino.

"They're big and athletic up front. They're good pass rushers, I'd say that's their biggest strength. They have two d-ends and a d-tackle that rush the passer real well. They get up the field. They probably play the pass better than the run, so we have to come out and smash them again. We have to make it another tough-man's game. We need to make them defend the run."

The 519 rushing yards accumulated by Illinois in the Northwestern game no doubt got Hill's attention. Petrino hopes that will make the passing game more effective.

"I think each week's different because of what scheme you're going against. They should have to defend our run, so our play action game should be big hopefully."

Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has great respect for the Fresno defense.

"They're aggressive. Their defensive ends are two of the best pass-rushing defensive ends I think we've seen all year. They really get after you. Their safeties play pretty aggressive, and that's something you've got to account for. They like to play downhill and bring the fight to you."

Scheelhaase redshirted last year and was a spectator when FSU visited Memorial Stadium. But he believes there are things the Illini can do to prevent a recurrence of that game and its 53-52 result.

"That was one of the craziest games I've seen, with the way it ended. We don't want to give it a chance to have a crazy ending. I think there were some things we could have taken care of earlier in the game so we wouldn't have to worry about the stuff at the end. We've got an extra week to prepare for them, and we're gonna use it to our advantage. We're gonna be ready to go out to California."

Hill's record proves him to be possibly the top special teams coach in the country. Koenning realizes how much of an impact FSU's special teams can have in a game.

"He's a really great coach. His record speaks for itself. There's a lot of defensive guys on special teams, so we're gonna have to do our part both ways.

"I can't reiterate enough, we're gonna have to play hard and fast as if we're playing Ohio State, Michigan State or anybody else. We're trying to get our guys to understand that. They've beaten a lot of good teams. We've got to understand what we're going into."

When the Bulldogs went for a two point conversion to defeat the Illini in 2009, it was defensive back Tavon Wilson who thought he made a game-saving play by tipping the ball away from the intended receiver.

But joy quickly turned to frustration when the carom ended in the arms of a Fresno offensive lineman who fell into the end zone. Wilson wants to make amends for a play that has haunted him ever since.

"Now we've got a chance to go back and get revenge on those guys. It was a play I wish I had back. I should have tried to go up and intercept the ball instead of tapping it away, or got the ball to the ground. We're doing a lot better this year, so I don't have too many regrets.

"We're just gonna go out there and do what we do. Play as fast and hard as we can, the same thing we've done most of the year. Go out there and take advantage of our opportunity, see what happens."

Illinois coaches are not emphasizing payback in game preparations. But Wilson is not the only Illini player with that thought in mind. Linebacker Martez Wilson feels the same way.

"Actually, I didn't play last year, but we still got an 'L,' so it would be great. Wonderful weather, and it would be an opportunity to get revenge and get a 'W.'"

Running back Mikel Leshoure had one of his best games against FSU last year and is expected to carry the load offensively again. Payback is on his mind as well.

"We're ready to get after it. We feel we owe this team. We struck out against them last year. It was a good game, back and forth, but we definitely could have got the win.

"Our defense is a lot better than it was last year. I think it's gonna be a hard-fought game. We're gonna play the whole 60 minutes, come out with some fire and get the win."

Defensive tackle Corey Liuget also wants to make up for last year.

"Yes, most definitely. It was a great hard-fought game last year. You know those guys are gonna pack their lunch boxes and come to work and be ready to play Friday. So we have to do the same."

Payback or not, the Illini feel they can enhance their bowl opportunities and continue a positive trend that can extend to a bowl game and beyond.

"We win this last game, and we look much better at 7-5 than 6-6," Martez Wilson explains.

"I know it can't hurt to win," Scheelhaase surmises. "We're going out their with the mind to win the game. Winning the game is our main goal. You build momentum when you build wins on top of the other, and you build confidence in yourself. You win these last two games, and you feel confident going into the bowl game. I think that's important for us."

"We've had a pretty successful season so far, and we want to finish off on a positive note," Bussey says.

Graham Pocic wants to give Illini seniors a special memory in their last regular season game.

"Obviously a 7-5 team is gonna be more attractive than a team that's lost six games. So this game is as important as getting bowl eligible. And it's the last regular season game for the seniors."

Tavon Wilson was asked whether this game has any meaning for the Illini. Thinking of playing without the pressure of having to win, he answered in the affirmative.

"This game does have a lot more meaning, no matter where we go in the bowl season. We're a lot more confident and relaxed right now because we got the bowl eligibility out of the way. We can just go out there and play relaxed and free."

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