Illini Hope to Reverse 2008 Result With WMU

Western Michigan invades Memorial Stadium Saturday at 2:30 pm. The Fighting Illini need to retain focus after their big win against Arizona State last week. If not, WMU is capable of beating them. Illini upperclassmen remember their embarrassing loss to this same team three years ago. They don't want their pristine 3-0 start damaged by less than complete effort.

Illinois senior lineman Jack Cornell took center stage in the locker room after the big win over Arizona State last Saturday night. He didn't want any celebration to exclude a realization of the importance of the Western Michigan game coming up a week hence.

The Illini laid an egg in Ford Field three years ago. The loss prevented a bowl bid, and present Illini upperclassmen won't let anyone ignore the pain they felt that day. They are determined to reverse that previous decision according to quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.

"Everybody heard that message. Everybody knows that our mindset should be that we're going full force after this team. Anybody who's not under that belief shouldn't even step on the field Saturday. That's how I look at it."

Defensive end Whitney Mercilus is one of those who experienced the loss to WMU.

"They beat us my freshman year in 2008. That stuck in my heart really deep. I'm really focused this week because any given weekend, any opponent can win.

"I'm trying to push everybody to play faster than they have been playing. Be more perfect, with no mistakes or anything like that. I don't want the same embarrassment. We don't want to lose in our house either."

Hopefully, incentive to beat the Broncos will make up for any tendency to relax emotionally after a big win. Sandwiched between ASU and the important start of the Big 10 season against Northwestern, the WMU contest can be considered a trap game. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was asked if he believes in trap games.

"Yes I do. It's hard psychologically, not any different than being married 25 years. You take your wife for granted. It's a subconscious thing to start taking things for granted."

Koenning has been focusing on reasons to play an inspired game and not succumb to the trap.

"We've got a lot of reasons to not do that. The last couple teams we've played from Michigan have gotten after us pretty good. And the Western Michigan game before I got here, it was a game that was really embarrassing. And they're good enough. All you have to do is watch film to see they're good enough to embarrass you if you don't play your best game."

Defensive tackle Akeem Spence leaves no doubt Koenning has worked hard to keep his players focused on the task at hand.

"Coach Vic is on us. He doesn't want us to fall off. He reminded us of all the Michigan teams we've played, and we haven't played them that well. This week, we're trying to keep that intensity and go out on Saturday and execute."

Fullback Jay Prosch offers a formula for keeping an even keel during the season.

"You can't think about who you're playing. Just focus on yourself and keep doing what we've been doing, practicing hard and preparing the same for every game. We can't get full of ourselves. Don't think about what you've done, just prepare every week the same no matter who you're playing."

It shouldn't be too hard to fire up since Western Michigan is a challenge for Illinois in all three phases of the game.

"That's a well coached, tough, get-after-your-tail football team," Illini head coach Ron Zook states. "Our guys understand that. They understand that this is the next game. It's more important now than Arizona State because it's over. It's one game at a time. They're gonna play hard, we know that.

"Coach (Bill) Cubit is a great football coach, and he's done a great job wherever he's been. He has a chance to be the winningest coach at Western Michigan this year. A couple people told me they probably had the best talent in the MAC. We respect this group and know we have to be ready to play."

The WMU offense is in the capable hands of quarterback Alex Carder and a receiver corps featuring Jordan White. Zook says the Illini defense will be tested.

"Offensively, they've got a receiver that's averaging 10 or 11 catches a game, and he's got a 24-yard punt return average. I think they're averaging over 30 yards on their kickoff returns.

"They're a spread team. Everyone's a spread team nowadays, but they can run the football as well. They've done a great job of throwing the football."

Koenning leaves no doubt Carder will test the Illini defense with his high percentage passing attack. But the Broncos are more than Carder.

"No question. They've got a couple wide receivers that are high quality. And then there are some other guys that are good players. They've got a big offensive line. They've got one guy that's unbelievable size. The quarterback's an effective runner, he can throw, he's a good player.

"Saying you're one of the better teams in the MAC says a lot. It's a good conference that's had a ton of great players come out of it. They beat people every year. We're gonna have to play extremely well to come out of Saturday with positive feelings."

Mercilus describes the type of plays that could give the Illini defense problems if it isn't careful.

"They have this quarterback run play to the outside. They have two lead blockers. It's gonna be kind of difficult, but the thing is, we're gonna have to have guys on that side of the ball to rally to the ball, take out those players and get to the quarterback.

"They use a lot of bubble passes where they turn and run. So you've got to hit it home really quick. I don't think that's gonna cause a problem for us the way we've been playing. But it's definitely something to respect."

UI offensive coordinator Paul Petrino describes the basics of the WMU defense.

"They play hard. They play with great effort. They're kind of a four down, cover 8 team, but they also get into some odd fronts. So they try to mess with you a little bit. They blitz a lot, and they look like they're real well coached. We have to come out and out-execute them."

Zook expands on the aggressiveness of the Broncos.

"Defensively, they're mostly a 4-3 defense. They are great tacklers, they run to the football extremely well, blitz more than probably anybody we've seen to this date.

"Particularly, you get close to the red zone and they're going to blitz every down. But they just play extremely hard and are just a well-coached (team)."

Prosch says the Illini offense is looking forward to the game.

"Their defense plays really hard. They're not gonna get down if we score, or give up. They're gonna fight to the end. That's always tough.

"I think they're very focused; they're not gonna make many mistakes. So our job is to go in there and hit them and make our way ourselves. We can't rely on them getting penalties or making dumb errors. It's gonna be fun."

The game is not a sellout. Zook reminds Illini fans their support is needed as much or more this week as it was last Saturday.

"We're going to need our fans, we're going to need our students. My message to the students is like we tell our players: go to class, rest up this week, and then we need them back in there Saturday at 2:30 doing the same thing they did (last) Saturday night. So it should be a great game."

The Illini are ranked in the media poll and are enjoying a strong beginning to the season. But as Scheelhaase reminds, there's plenty of time to count victories and rewards after the season is complete.

"We'll worry about celebrating and focusing on what we accomplished at the end of the season. Right now, we haven't really accomplished anything."

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