Illinois has it's first 4-0 start in football since 1951, but players and coaches realize the Big 10 is much tougher sledding. The Illini were far from perfect last week against Western Michigan, so they were focused on making improvements prior to Homecoming Saturday.
For instance, the Illini kickoff unit gave up more yardage than they wanted last week while failing to break any long returns themselves. Illini head coach Ron Zook acknowledges a need to improve all aspects of special teams.
"I'm not real happy with our kickoff coverage. We've got to get that shored up a little bit. I think the punting has been off and on. We've covered fairly well. Our kickoff returns are a work in progress because I feel we've been very close to hitting one. It's one of those things where you've got to be right on. We're still working at it, but I feel pretty good about where we are."
Some Illini fans boo Illini rugby punts due to bad memories from a few years ago. Justin DuVernois and Ryan Lankford share the punting chores, with DuVernois being a nervous freshman and Lankford a sophomore getting his first opportunities. Lankford is best at rugby punts, and both have been inconsistent. That has forced Zook to use both, with mixed results.
"There's a lot of things that go into that decision. Number one, Ryan punted the best last week (in practice). That's something that needs to get corrected.
"It's two different plays, and it causes you a lot of work in the week. But I think it's worth it. You go with the one you feel like will be the best. What happened on the second punt was not necessarily Ryan's fault. I think you'll see them both this week."
Fans have also questioned using both Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole at quarterback, especially when they alternate plays. Illini quarterback coach Jeff Brohm is confident in what they are doing, even if fans sense controversy.
"We don't have any quarterback controversy here. Nathan's our starter. When Reilly comes in, he provides a spark in our passing game. We try to utilize our guys to the best of their ability. Miles (Osei) is a guy we could bring in to spark our running game too.
"We've got three guys we think can play; each of them brings a different element to the game. I think as quarterbacks, when you know there's some other guys there as well, it makes you work hard knowing you've got to come to play. All three work hard and practice hard every week. We're getting all our guys ready to play; you never know when someone gets hurt."
Scheelhaase nursed a shoulder bruise last week and suffered a strained neck on a face mask penalty on top of it. But his thoughts this week rest more with the Northwestern game than any personal limitation.
"It (shoulder) actually feels pretty good. It didn't take too many shots. It feels a whole lot better than it did after the last game. My neck is good, it's just sore. But that's the least of my worries."
The Illinois running game was much more prolific second half than first against WMU. Center Graham Pocic explains what happened.
"I think we played more physical and focused on our assignments a little bit better than we did in the first half. We got rid of the dumb mistakes.
"We ran for 300 yards, and the thing is we're still not very happy. I think the first half could have been a lot better than it was. It's just little things we need to get figured out."
"I think Simon played well. It was his first game, and it's expected (he be less than perfect). I'm glad it happened the way it happened because you have a guy with a little experience now. He's still got a ways to go obviously, but the next time he gets in won't be the first time."
Senior running back Troy Pollard ran for a career high 133 yards last Saturday. He was a focus of media attention this week, and deservedly so.
"I've waited my turn. I've never complained or pouted, claiming I should be playing more. I always stayed patient, and I was ready for my turn. I made the most of my opportunity."
He is the consummate team player. He doesn't mind sharing playing time with three other running backs.
"We all bring something to the table. We can feel out the games and determine who is best in given situations. Last game, I fit the situation better, so I got more playing time.
"It's great competition. It brings out the best in us. You've got to study your game, even in practice. If you're not practicing hard and working hard, the next guy can come in and do the same thing you're doing, and sometimes even better."
Defensive end Whitney Mercilus is beginning to draw attention to his play. He has become a sack master in his first year as a starter.
"I'm not getting overconfident about it; I'm keeping it on a humble path. I'm just looking to improve on my mistakes from the previous weeks and continue to try to become a better player."
Mercilus and the defense shone brightly several days at Camp Rantoul, but their play was somewhat overshadowed by the talented offense. People are now discovering they are better than advertised. Mercilus considers it vindication for poor preseason prognostications.
"Definitely. We've proven the defense is definitely a contender. The thing is, the offense is definitely dominant also."
Ashante Williams saw his first action of the season last Saturday after missing all of Camp Rantoul and playing only on the scout team his first couple weeks back. Outside linebacker coach Ron West says it will be awhile before Williams is ready to get significant time at SAM.
"We're trying to get Ashante to where he can provide some depth. He was penciled in as a starter after spring ball. So we're going along game by game trying to get him more reps.
"He played all our kicking snaps. That's probably the major role Ashante is gonna play right now. He's on our starting punt and kickoff teams. He is on our breakers punt team, and he's also penciled in on our kickoff return. So that's four major special teams. As he does well at that, he'll get snaps on defense."
Northwestern looms Saturday with vengeance on its mind. If the Illini correct their mistakes and come ready to play, they can continue their winning ways. It appears they are determined to do just that.