Despite Big Win, Illini Focus On Improvements

Buoyed by a big win Saturday night, the Fighting Illini football team has spent another productive week practicing for Western Michigan. An appearance in the polls is nice, and compliments for a much-maligned defense are well earned. But there is still much work to do, and the Illini went about the business of making improvements this week.

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase isn't overwhelmed by his team's place in the AP writers poll this week. Rather, he cares more about the impression it leaves with fans who have yet to visit Memorial Stadium for a game.

"It's great for the fans. Those who were there on Saturday know what it's all about. Maybe those who weren't there saw that we were ranked and think, 'Wow, maybe this team is something real,' and they'll come out for the next game and check us out. But in the locker room, we don't care what people are saying on the outside. We focus on what we need to do."

The normally stout Illini run game struggled Saturday. Scheelhaase says the offense has been dedicated to correcting errors this week in practice.

"We definitely want to get better at the run game. I feel like it's doing well. It's doing its job, but we have to improve. Everybody who gets their hands on the ball should try to get as many yards as they can. It helps move the chains easier, makes third downs shorter and helps us out in general."

Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert acknowledges inconsistency.

"We're doing some things well. I wish we were more consistent. At certain parts of the game we've been playing well, and then all of a sudden we hit a lull, and then we kind of pick it up again.

"We've played protection-wise well at times but haven't been more physical in the run game, and then vice versa. So we've got to become more consistent in every phase of the game."

Illinois head coach Ron Zook is confident in the running game. He was especially pleased with the play of running back Jason Ford Saturday.

"Maybe we didn't get as many yards as Coach (Paul) Petrino wanted, but I feel pretty good about it. I think Jason ran the ball hard. I promise you they were sore getting off the airplane."

The passing game is much improved over last season, but the tight ends have not yet become involved. Scheelhaase provides a partial explanation.

"With the first three teams we played, we've seen a lot of blitz looks. So they've had to help out in protection more. We do a lot of things based off what other teams do well. We'll figure out what they do well and try to beat it, basically. Our game plan is different every week. I'm sure the tight ends will get involved when the time comes."

Tight end coach Chip Long feels his group will perform when called upon. Different games call for different play calls, and sometimes tight ends are needed more as blockers than receivers. He doesn't judge his players on how many passes they catch.

"They're doing good. They're playing physical and are where we want them to be. I'm always preaching to play physical and things will happen in the passing game. If you play like that and have that mindset, chances are you are going to play like that and be a great receiver.

"I think they've got to keep doing what they're doing. They're getting better and better. If it's there it's there, and they've got to make a play. They're a big part of our offense. They've just got to take care of what they've got to do, and things will happen.

"It's a long season, and you can't get caught up on who's getting the ball thrown to them. We only need to get caught up in who's winning and losing. That's what's so good about that group."

The Illini defense had one of its best games in several years against Arizona State, but defensive coordinator Vic Koenning brought everyone back to earth quickly.

"We made a bunch of mistakes in the game. We left another five sacks out there that should have been easy. Had we executed like we should have, they're gonna make some plays, but we shouldn't have given up anything. Our players felt like we didn't play very well; it was good to hear them say that."

But coach, a review of the game showed Illini defenders becoming sure tacklers. The contrast from a couple years ago was striking!

"It's good to hear someone else seeing that. But we're still correcting it every day. There were some times where we made tackles that weren't exactly right.

"We will keep pressing on doing them exactly right. At least you'll get close. The old saying is you shoot for the stars, and maybe you'll hit the moon. All we can do is keep working on it."

It is impossible to produce a peak performance every week. The key for the Illini is to play as close to perfection as they can.

"You can't be electric every week, and we understand that. But that's why we try to get these guys to practice at a high rate all the time, so that's the only thing they know. If it's a normal day, it's still fast.

"I don't know that we played electric against South Dakota State. We didn't play electric against Arkansas State. We might have played electric, but we still made some mistakes against Arizona State. Somewhere in between, there's that speed we've got to keep practicing to play at."

Koenning realizes he must get more players experience. That is difficult when playing quality teams, but he will make an effort to do so in future games.

"We've got to get more guys to playing. That's something we're constantly trying to do because I could tell in the fourth quarter, Ian (Thomas) and Jonathan (Brown) were fatigued. It was obvious fatigue. I've got to get Houston (Bates) in there more, and he's got to do things right so I can play him more. And we've got to play the freshmen some.

"We've got to get Pat Nixon-Youman in maybe, and some other guys have got to play more. I think Keith (Gilmore) has done a better job with the front guys in rotating.

"But it's a trust thing too. If a defensive lineman makes a mistake, then it's 6 yards. If a db makes a mistake, it's 6 points. So it's hard to bite the bullet and play somebody that you may not be totally confident in."

Zook's thoughts on the defense took on a more positive spin. The secondary was expected to be better this year, but the front line deserves praise for its development, especially since it was ranked last in the conference in preseason.

"Well, I think they took it a little bit as a challenge. You know, three of the four starters were back. That's what's kind of exciting about a new year. You've got a chance to have guys show people, 'Hey, we can play, we're not chopped liver.' And I think those guys have done a nice job with that.

"Tim Kynard is a perfect example. He had a great summer. He's stepped up and done the things that we've asked him to do. We felt like at the end of the year last year, that Whitney (Mercilus) was our best defensive end.

"Akeem (Spence) has really picked it up, particularly in the last two weeks. Coach Gilmore's done a great job with them. Coach Vic put together a great plan, and they had a lot of fun. They play with a lot of emotion, and I think that's how you play defense."

Mercilus feels hard work is paying off for him.

"I'm playing more aggressive. We put more work in during the off season than we have in the past, and it definitely improved my pass rush. I also improved my technique against the run."

As an upperclassman, Mercilus is also taking on more of a leadership role.

"I've been trying to step up to lead. On defense, you get emotional. So I figure I'll try to keep everybody positive and push them to keep them from being down. When bad things happen, keep your heads lifted high."

Many Illini come from winning high school programs. They know what it takes to win. After three straight victories, fullback Jay Prosch says the team is in good spirits.

"Winning reminds me of being back home in high school. It helps you focus on the next game and the next game."

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