Illini Unwilling To Rest On Their Laurels

To the victor goes the spoils. With a 3-0 record and a big win over ranked Arizona State, the Fighting Illini are getting some needed recognition. They are now ranked 24th in the Writers Poll and received the 27th most votes in the Coaches Poll. But the Illini are content to play out their entire schedule and worry about rewards once the competition is at an end.

Illinois football coach Ron Zook is pleased with the recognition his football team is receiving for its performance on the field after three games. But he and his players are focused on the remaining 9 regular season games and are not resting on their laurels.

"Obviously, it's an honor (to be ranked), but our guys understand it doesn't mean anything right now. We have a long way to go. I think the one thing the game did was put us in position to help us achieve our goals. It was an important game, yes. It was a big game, yes. But there's a lot left we've got to play."

Zook is not as surprised as others with the fast beginning.

"It was a great win for Illini Nation, but I felt all along we would have a chance to be a pretty good football team this year. Our coaches have had great plans, and our guys have done everything we've asked them to do. Every win in this is profession is a good win, and we enjoy all of them."

The Illini continue to enjoy team health according to Zook.

"We've got some bumps and bruises, but we're very fortunate again. That's the way you like it. When you're playing hard and flying around, usually you don't get too many injuries."

Concerns about Nathan Scheelhaase and his shoulder appear to be unfounded.

"It was sore, but Dr. (Robert) Gurtler said he was a tough guy. It won't be an issue. He might not throw as much (Monday) as he would normally, but we've talked about not having him throw as much on Mondays anyway."

In an interesting anecdote, freshman Reilly O'Toole was scheduled to play several plays when he entered for Scheelhaase in the fourth quarter against Arizona State. Pass interference was called on his one pass play, and Scheelhaase replaced him to complete the game winning drive.

Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, who was coached by his dad to be tough and play with pain throughout his own career, demands the same of his players. According to Zook, putting in O'Toole appeared to light a fire under Scheehaase, who closed things out for the victory. But there may have been other psychological factors involved as well.

Petrino said after the game he called a running play for Scheelhaase on his return to the lineup. There was a wry smile on his face when he said it, as if he did it purposely to force Scheelhaase to toughen up and play with pain.

If so, it was a revealing look at the Illini play caller, who lobbied for Scheelhaase to take hits during Camp Rantoul and spring ball as well. Of course, it was also a revealing look at Scheelhaase, who responded to the challenge successfully.

Holding a tenuous 10-7 Illini advantage in the second quarter, the Illini tried a surprise play on 4th and 1 on their own 46 yard line. It was designed to look like a running play, but offset tight end Jon Davis was supposed to sprint downfield for a long bomb.

It was gutsy, the type of play that distinguishes big winners when successful. It wasn't, and it gave ASU great field position.

Petrino explained the play.

"On the fourth and one, we called 'get a pass,' and they tackled our tight end and it didn't get called. He can't let them tackle him. He's got to use his hands and not let them do that."

Fortunately the Illini held Arizona State, forcing a field goal that missed. Zook took the blame for the play call.

"We talked about that play Friday night. It's a play we've practiced since Rantoul. It was a good call. If it had been executed properly, it could have gone for a big one. I was just proud of the defense for coming in and taking care of my mistake."

The Illini defense played inspired the whole game, and Zook gave them proper credit.

"Coach Vic (Koenning) will be the first to tell you they made some mistakes. But they played hard and physical and got after it. That was a good offense, and we knew going into the game they were going to complete some passes.

"They had a good plan, and we had to make some adjustments. The defense did a great job with some of those things. I was especially happy with the effort. I thought it was great."

It would be a mistake for the Illini to take their upcoming game with Western Michigan for granted. Sandwiched between ASU and the Big 10 opener with Northwestern, it could fall into the loss category far too easily. Zook was pleased to see a senior remind the squad right after the game how WMU beat the Illini recently.

"Jack Cornell brought this up in the locker room. He remembers what happened to us up there a couple years ago. We played them in Ford Field and got embarrassed. I was told by some people in the summer that they had the best talent in the MAC. The quarterback's a great player. It's gonna take a great effort."

So the Illini must put their big win behind them and prepare for another solid effort next Saturday.

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