Clay Nurse doesn't pull any punches. He says what he thinks, and his comments are usually a summarization of deep thoughts that occupied his mind previously. On one hand, he is happy Illinois has earned a spot in the Texas Bowl despite a brutal schedule.
"It feels great. Hard work pays off. I planned on being back last year, but it didn't happen. It came at the right time, you know. I'm just happy the team is winning, defense is better and we're going to a bowl game."
But on the other hand, his interpretation of his own season is the opposite.
"Terrible. I came here with expectations. You expected to do one set of things, and it didn't work out like that. It's a different plan for the team, a different plan for individuals. The chips fell as they did."
The senior from Beltsville, Maryland, had two shoulder surgeries during his time as an Illini, and he's been forced to play with a brace the past two seasons. He played through multiple separated shoulders in 2009, but this season was a definite improvement.
"I had one issue, but as the season progressed the shoulder began to feel stronger. We started taking more and more of the restraints away, and it was good for me this year."
The Illini were riding high after dominating home performances against Indiana and Purdue. At 5-3, the team and its fans had visions of grandeur. But losses at Michigan and at home against Minnesota cast doubts about the defense. The team philosopher has an explanation for the reversal.
"We forgot what got us to that point in the Michigan game. I think guys just didn't want to make mistakes. They didn't want to cost the team any more. We had a good thing going, and we wanted to keep it going.
"We just wanted to do our best, and wanting to do that and make all the plays, you kind of lose your mentality, what got you to that point. The coaches and players are working hard to get back to that."
Did the defense begin to get its confidence back against Northwestern in Wrigley Field?
"Yes, but that's different. That transcends defense, that transcends coaching, that transcends everything. That's an in-state rival that was saying they were Chicago's Big 10 team. That game was more for the heart."
After the emotional high in Chicago, the Illini suffered the humiliation of a frustrating loss at Fresno State.
"That was just a down game for us. We always try to perform to the best of our ability. There's no real magical answer for it, there's no words to be said. Just come out here and go back to doing what you're supposed to."
Was it difficult to get psyched up to play Fresno State after the glorious win against NW?
"No, it was Fresno State. They were saying they would play anyone, anytime, anywhere. It's great to play a team like that. The fans were a real ruckus crowd, so it was good to go out there and play against them."
Nurse will accept no excuses. There were a number of factors that may have factored into their loss at Fresno, but he minimizes them. While others complained about the poor footing on a wet field, Nurse called it a non factor.
"Most of us played on fields like that at night in high school, so it was good to get out there and slide around and get your uniform dirty. It was good. No issues with the field or nothing like that. You have to learn to play in any conditions."
Nurse believes the porous defense late in the season was a temporary aberration. He says the Illini are getting their mojo back, and the future is bright.
"I think we got complacent, but we got it back. We didn't get it all the way back, but it's coming back slowly but surely. I expect this group will do great things next year."