Practice Week Goes Better After A Win

College teams work all winter, spring and summer preparing for their upcoming seasons. The culmination of all that work is their first game. The Fighting Illini football team had lost that first game the past five seasons, leaving a bad taste in their mouths. So practice this week was met with renewed vigor after the win last Saturday.

Illinois senior offensive tackle Jeff Allen summed up the feeling he and his teammates shared upon awakening Sunday morning after their win over Arkansas State Saturday to open their 2011 season.

"It was a great feeling, waking up to a win. Everything tastes better when you're a winner. It makes you want to repeat it over and over."

Illinois head coach Ron Zook mentioned another equally important feeling as his Illini prepare to host South Dakota State Saturday.

"There's not many times I can walk in here after 28 practices and the first game and be able to say that everybody practiced today. It's a good feeling."

Yes, the Illini are in good spirits. But they realize more work is needed to create the team they all hope they can become. From all indications, the Illini took the win in stride and have worked hard preparing for the Jackrabbits.

"The first challenge for us this week is to take the things that we did this past Saturday and get better on them," Zook reminded. "One of the best things to me about this past game was that there were a lot of things we can get better at."

Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino saw much he liked, but he will never be satisfied with anything short of perfection. The mistakes become good teaching aids for future games.

"I thought we had two series in that second quarter where we gave up a safety, and then on the next series we got stopped on a third and one. That can't happen. We're gonna really concentrate on improving both the running game and the passing game."

Only two receivers caught passes on the day, but A.J. Jenkins and Darius Millines combined for 16 receptions, 267 yards and two touchdowns. Petrino wanted to involve more receivers, but Arkansas State's defense dictated the play calls according to Petrino.

"There were a couple times when we called a play where one side of the field has a man beater, and the other side of the field has a zone beater. There were times Fred (Sykes), Spencer (Harris) and Ryan (Lankford) could possibly have gotten the ball, it was just by what defense they were in. We went to A.J. and Darius."

Illini fans might continue to question the UI's promise to involve tight ends in the passing game, but defense dictated much of that last Saturday according to tight end coach Chip Long.

"That's kind of what they went to. We have a lot of confidence in our wideouts. Anytime they play one-on-one, we're gonna go to those guys. They did a great job.

"We had a max protection on the blitzes, so we kept the tight end back for protection quite a bit. That's the good thing about our offense. We have answers for just about everything."

Long continues to be pleased with his tight end corps.

"We played four tight ends, all with specific roles, and their roles will be building throughout the season. It's a long season, and they play a lot of snaps. Every guy builds and builds, and we can move them around all over the place."

Evan Wilson, Zach Becker and Eddie Viliunas all shared playing time, and freshman Jon Davis saw his first action. Freshman Matt LaCosse is still waiting in the wings, but he may see action later in the season.

"Jon Davis played 11 plays. We're bringing Matt along in case something happens. He's got to be ready to play like all of them do."

Petrino had no major complaints with his redshirt sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, at least in the passing game.

"I thought he had a great game in the passing game. He showed huge improvement. He did a good job on all his reads."

Scheelhaase completed both long and short passes and exploited man coverage in the Arkansas State secondary. He knew he and his teammates could execute, but doing it in a game improves confidence.

"We were pretty confident of the passing game going into the season," Scheelhaase says. "It felt good seeing that confidence on the field. We've just got to keep it up every week. Keep making improvements in the passing game."

Freshman quarterback Reilly O'Toole asserted himself well in his first college game. Petrino and Zook both praised him and promised he would see more action as the season progressed. However, center Graham Pocic had to make an adjustment with O'Toole in the game.

"He's a little more jittery back there. I've got to hold the ball a little longer for him. But he's a talented kid, and he really can sling it."

Running back shows four quality performers including two seniors. But most questions for the coaches pertained to freshmen Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson. They both showed flashes of their potential Saturday. Petrino actually expected to play them more than he did.

"We probably threw the ball more than we anticipated, but they both got in the game and got some nice runs. They both got their first game under their belt. We anticipate they'll play better from now on out."

Zook says a key for both was the speed with which they picked up their pass protection assignments during Camp Rantoul.

"One of the most impressive things about camp is the way they picked up protections. Josh is a little smaller; it's a little easier for Donovonn because he's thicker, bigger. Because of the way both can catch the ball, they're gonna be in there in passing situations. So they have to be able to protect."

Zook was asked why players like Young and O'Toole are able to make the transition to college sooner than others.

"Number one, the God-given ability they have. Two, the high school coaching and the level of high school ball they played. Donovonn played down in Katy, Texas, and that's really good football. All Reilly did was win two state championships.

"And also the maturity. They grow up and are able to handle these things. There are a lot of things going through their heads that a lot of them are not mature enough to handle. I think these two guys in particular are excited about the pressure and excited about the opportunity."

Petrino drilled his offense all week toward the ultimate goal: invincibility. This is how he describes his dream offense.

"When you get to become a real good offense, you pass when you want to and run when you want to. You've always got to run the ball to win; you've got to establish that first. When the defense packs everybody in there, your ability to throw the ball makes you harder to defend."

The Illini defense also performed well in its first game. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning saw imperfections, but he was pleased with the effort.

"When you play relentless, even if you make mistakes many times good things happen. Coach Zook made the point that we were able to make some mistakes and still win. This gives us a chance to still coach and correct the mistakes. Do your stuff, and the game will come to you."

He was especially pleased with zero penalties for the game, although he feels officiating was permissive on both sides.

"That was awesome. It doesn't happen very often, particularly at the first game. You know what, there's a couple they could have called. We got lucky. We hit the quarterback one time that they didn't call. We had some go against us like that last year."

Like Allen, Bandit Michael Buchanan is enjoying the aftereffects of an opening win.

"It feels good to start the season off strong. It's my first time being 1-0 here at the University of Illinois. The guys are happy and more excited to win all our home games. We're more confident. But we've got to win on Saturday."

Defensive end Whitney Mercilus agrees.

"It feels pretty good. We've just got to stay humble and stay focused on the next opponent."

Koenning started defensive end Glenn Foster at the 3-technique tackle to enhance a pass rush against Arkansas State's spread offense. He explained why Foster started over camp regular Craig Wilson.

"Glenn is an explosive guy. There are games that are Glenn's forte, and there are games that may not be Glenn's forte. Glenn gets off the block, and he's rolling. Sometimes when you've got that explosiveness, you can patch a hole in stuff too."

Wilson is built more to stop a strong running game and should see significant time against run teams. What many don't realize is that his plays Saturday were among his first in five years on campus.

"I hope that Craig can get a few more snaps than he got last week. It'll come. Craig played a whole lot more last week than he's ever played."

After emphasizing a need to develop more depth on defense, fewer players saw the field on a hot day than expected. Koenning realizes he needs to play more people, although they need to earn the trust of the coaches.

"We probably need to sub more this week. We'll see how it goes. Coach Gillhamer had some confidence in guys. I guess that comes with practice habits."

One position that took advantage of depth was defensive end. With Foster playing tackle, Mercilus still had a capable backup to rest him when needed in Tim Kynard.

"When I got winded, Kynard was definitely ready to play," Mercilus stated. "He's been improving throughout camp, and Coach has been getting a little more confidence in him."

Like the offense, the Illini defense found plenty to critique and improve. Giving up a touchdown late in the game was an eye opener according to Buchanan.

"We didn't finish the way we're supposed to. We gave up that last touchdown, which we never want to do. We did some good things, but there's a lot we can work on. There were some instances where we should have gotten better pressure on the quarterback to help our secondary."

From all indications, the practice week leading to the South Dakota State game has gone well. The Illini appear to be taking their opponent seriously and have prepared well for an improved effort Saturday.

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