Illinois coach Ron Zook reviewed yesterday's performance against Western Michigan while looking toward the Northwestern invasion next week during his Sunday teleconference. The Illini did not play an inspired game, but Zook was forgiving.
"If you go back and look how programs grow, last year we could have won every game. We were in every game. Does that mean we were close enough, or they didn't play quite as well? We lost close, and now maybe we're gonna win close. And then maybe next year we'll win big. I don't know.
"I think you have to understand, when you play a very emotional game like we did last week, it's hard to play at that level every week."
Zook doesn't expect any emotional carryover to the upcoming Northwestern game.
"I'm not concerned about this week. I think they're gonna be ready to go, and they understand the importance of this game. Obviously, Northwestern's gonna try to come back and make amends for what happened last year, which we would expect them to do. We've got to be ready to go.
"But I think it's just so hard to play at the level everybody expects to play at. Look anywhere in the country. It's hard to play the way you want to play."
The Illini continue to stay relatively healthy after four games, although there are concerns about quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase after injuries two straight weeks. Hopefully, the irreplaceable offensive leader will heal rapidly from shoulder and neck injuries.
"Nathan's neck is a little sore, but otherwise we're in pretty good shape physically. Nathan hurt his shoulder last week, and he probably didn't throw as well yesterday. It probably had a lot to do with his shoulder. He said today his shoulder actually felt pretty good."
Zook was coy in the WMU postgame press conference regarding a couple of Illini players needing thumb X-rays. He still won't name names, but it appears their problems will not require extended recoveries.
"They're sore, but they'll be okay."
There is also concern about star weakside tackle Jeff Allen. Kicked out of the Western Michigan game before halftime, he may be required to miss at least the first half of the Northwestern game. Zook is awaiting clarification from the Big 10 office on the exact nature of the penalty and the repercussions.
"I don't know yet. It's hard to tell on film. I have a call in, and we'll get it figured out. There wasn't a punch. The guy punched Jeff before that, but no one saw that. I really don't know (the ramifications)."
Some fans and media alike assume teams should choose one starting running back and use him primarily every game. Finding such a talented and durable player is tough these days. The Illini are benefitting from a "running back by committee" approach.
"I thought they ran extremely well. I'm just so happy for Troy. He's done a lot for this football program, didn't complain about anything, didn't complain about not getting the ball or about playing time. All he does is go to work. Like we always tell them, 'You never know when it's gonna happen, but it's gonna happen, so keep working.'
"And I'm happy for Donovonn. We've said all along he's gonna continue to get better and better."
Offensive tackle Corey Lewis has finally been cleared for full contact after an extended recovery from multiple ACL surgeries. Zook updated his situation.
"Corey will be out there. We will work him in slowly. It's a slow process. The thing we don't want to do is put him in there too soon."
Do you expect him to play next weekend?
However, he always assumed Northwestern star quarterback would return in time for the Illinois game despite not playing up to now while recovering from Achilles tendon surgery. The Wildcats confirmed that fact this past week.
"I figured if he was gonna be able to play, he'll be playing against us. Obviously, he's a very good quarterback. He can run and throw.
"The quarterback this week (Alex Carder) was a pretty good player. I don't know that he can run like he (Persa) can, but he's a pretty good thrower. It will be another great challenge for the defense. When you get into the Big 10, every Saturday you'd better be ready to go."
Northwestern also benefits from a bye week prior to the Illini game. Zook is unsure whether that always guarantees a top performance.
"They'll be rested and ready to go. We've had bye weeks early in the year, and we've won some and lost some. There's no question you're fresher."
Arizona State pounded ranked USC 43-22 late last night. This gives further credibility to the Illini's win last Saturday.
"I expected them to beat them. I wasn't surprised by any stretch of the imagination. I said all along they're a good football team."
The ASU win helped push the Illini to #22 in the coaches' poll and #24 in the writers' poll, even though Arizona State probably saw Illinois as a trap game in the same way the Illini reacted to WMU. Plus, they had USC at home, a major advantage. Still, the Illini will take any national recognition they can generate.