The Illinois football team is flying high after coming from behind to defeat Northwestern yesterday. The win gives them a perfect 5-0 record for the season and bumped them to #16 in the coaches poll and #19 in the AP poll. Illini head coach Ron Zook sees a difference in the attitude of his team after wins this year compared with last season.
"I think they're much more confident now. They know they've got to do the work. The older guys understand that every week in the Big 10, you're gonna have to be ready to play."
An improved attitude was reflected in the tremendous drive the last 1:15 of the NU game that produced the win.
"I didn't feel panic. They knew what they had to do. The two minute offense, we do that every day. In the locker room afterward, I told them that's why we do it. You never know when you're gonna have to do it."
After three come-from-behind three point wins in consecutive weeks, Zook was asked if it was wearing down the team or pumping it up.
"Hopefully, it's pumping them up. I said last year we could have won every game, but we lost some close ones. You win close, and then hopefully you win big."
Senior receiver A.J. Jenkins had a career best and Illinois record 268 yards receiving Saturday. Zook was not aware of Jenkins's assault on the David Williams's single game record, but he praised his player.
"He had a great game. He's a big play receiver, and I'm proud of him and happy for him. Nate (Scheelhaase) put the ball on him, and he made things happen."
For all the great things Jenkins did, he wasn't perfect. Zook was seen yelling at Jenkins on one occasion, so he was asked about the imperfections.
"During the game, I was getting on him for some things he didn't do right. At the beginning of the game, there was a critical communication error on the kickoff return. He knows better than that. He knows if the ball goes into the end zone, he doesn't have to bring it out.
"And then one of the times we were going for a two point play. I'm not trying to take anything away from his performance. I'm proud of him. He'll continue to get better and be an all-around player."
Sophomore receiver Spencer Harris was clutch in the stretch as well.
"Yesterday was his best game; I thought he played extremely well and made some big catches. I think it was the fifth or sixth game last year that we started playing him. He's been going a year now, and he's been getting better and better.
"He's blocking better, and he made some big catches for us yesterday. I think you'll continue to see a bunch of stuff out of him."
Zook was understandably angry about Jonathan Brown's knee-to-the-groin personal foul in the first half. He didn't know the details until after the game. While he wouldn't provide specifics, he was emphatic that punishment would be meted out to Brown.
"It wasn't on our tape; I had to watch it on TV. All I'm gonna say about that is that our guys know that that's not gonna happen. I guarantee you will never see that again. I'm gonna deal with it. He knows better than that, and our team knows better than that.
"When you get into a game like this, our guys know there's always a lot of pushing and shoving on both sides. We talk to these guys constantly about that."
Zook also updated the injury situation. Senior running back Troy Pollard tweaked a knee, but the news on him was encouraging.
"He was probably scared more than anything, but he was fine. I talked to him this morning. He said it was all right today."
Freshman running back Josh Ferguson didn't dress for the second week in a row after pulling a hamstring in practice. Zook provided a good prognosis for him as well.
"Josh will be ready to go. Josh will work back in tomorrow. I feel like he'll be ready to go this week."
There are still uncertainties about sophomore receiver Darius Millines, who re-aggravated the stress fracture in his foot he originally suffered this spring.
"It's week to week. It's the same thing that Terry Hawthorne had last year and missed a week. Whenever the doctors say that we can get him back and be ready to go. I'm hopeful, but I don't know."
The Illini are last in the Big 10 in punt returns. Zook says Ryan Lankford is still winning the return battle.
"You put the guy back there that does the job in practice. Ryan is still back there. He made a mistake: that last punt, he's got to go catch that. But we haven't had a lot of punts returnable either. Yesterday, there really wasn't a punt he could have returned."
After five straight home games to begin the season, the Illini bus to Bloomington, Indiana, next week for their first road encounter. The Hoosiers are just 1-4 on the season, but they gave Penn State a battle before losing 16-10 yesterday. Zook reminds that no Big 10 game is easy.
"It'll be a slugfest again. It'll be a fight to the finish."