Illini Working To Shore Up Imperfections

Despite a 5-0 record and a thrilling come-from-behind win over Northwestern last Saturday, the Fighting Illini football team needed to shore up some things during practices this week. The running game is one, finding depth at linebacker another. From all indications, the Illini have had a great week of practice and expect improvement against Indiana.

Illinois has been known for its running game in recent years, but teams have loaded the box to prevent it. To counter, the Illini unleashed a potent aerial attack last weekend. Now defensive teams don't know what to emphasize. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino is gaining confidence in the passing game.

"Yeah we are. It was big to win a game having to throw the ball. It's good to know that we can do that. That's something you have to do sometimes. It was a great job by Nathan (Scheelhaase), and the line protected well second half. Of course, A.J. (Jenkins) had a good game, and Spencer (Harris) made some real good catches."

Will Indiana and other future teams still load the box and leave themselves vulnerable in the secondary?

"I don't know; it'll be interesting to see whether they decide to play the pass or the run."

Teams may begin to double team star receiver Jenkins. Petrino has a counter if they do.

"Right now, teams are trying to stop the run. If they go to double team him, it will help us run the ball. They've got to make a decision, one way or the other."

Starting running back Jason Ford has struggled at times this year. He is in good shape, so many wonder what is wrong.

"The first game, I thought he was trying to pick and choose too much, but other than that, he's had some pretty tough yards," head coach Ron Zook offered. "But he's done it, he's showed us he can do it, and we just got to get him to do it."

Running back coach DeAndre Smith provides the most detailed analysis of Ford's tendencies.

"Jason likes to anticipate things, so when things start happening in front of him, he anticipates what the end result is gonna be. When it doesn't work out that way, he looks real hesitant. When he does well, he is downhill and not making a move. It is an every day key to play full speed, trust what you see and things will work out.

"He wants to do well. He wants to help us win. He's proven he has done those things in the past. When he has his opportunity, he needs to just go, and he'll be okay.

"We're a zone team, so he just has to react to what's going on in front of them. Some runs end up with him having to go outside. We try to hit it inside so he can cut back. He's a great zone runner, and that's what we always try to put him in a situation to do."

Many Illini fans hope Donovonn Young gets more carries, and Petrino says that's possible. But Smith reminds Young is still a freshman.

"Donovonn is a talented young man. We're trying to put him into situations where he can be effective. Once Jason is gone, and I have just him and Josh Ferguson and whoever we recruit, he's gonna have to play a lot for us. The more he plays, the better he'll get.

"Right now, the package is still kind of small as he's still just a freshman. He is still learning the whole thing. He doesn't have it yet by any means. He has to continue to work to get better."

Petrino knows he must have a potent running attack. He blames everyone and not just Ford.

"He's just got to keep working hard, keep hanging in there. It's not only been him. Some of it has been the blocking, a little bit of everything. We all play a big part in it. Offense is about all 11 guys. We just have to keep working hard and getting better every day in practice."

When opponents pack 8 or more players close to the line, they have more defenders than the Illini have blockers. Offensive tackle Jeff Allen admits that hurts the blocking schemes, but he refuses to make excuses.

"I would say so, but they did the same thing last year. We just have to continue with it, stay tough, guys have to hang onto their blocks a little longer, and backs have to dive in there."

Allen knows improved passing will help the run game.

"Definitely. They're gonna have to respect our passing game. They can't pack the box because we can throw the ball. They take guys out of the box, that allows us to run the ball more effectively."

Everything seems to be snowballing in a positive direction for the Illini offense. Tight Evan Wilson says a successful aerial game encourages all receivers to work harder and anticipate more opportunities.

"Even in practice, if we know the ball's gonna come, we're gonna run those routes a little harder. It's great to see that our passing game has evolved. It is encouraging to a lot of receivers."

And seeing Jenkins become a potential superstar pushes his teammates to greater heights according to Petrino.

"When your really good players are playing like that, and they can see that they're in a zone and how they're feeling, it gives everyone else confidence that you're gonna win."

While the offense was working to better itself this week, the Illini defense was scrambling to find replacements for starting linebacker Jonathan Brown, suspended for the Indiana game. Defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Vic Koenning says redshirt freshman Houston Bates and true freshmen Ralph Cooper and Henry Dickinson will have to help.

"We'll see how guys do in practice. Those guys have been practicing hard every week, and we'll move the next guy up.

"Yes, we will use the freshmen. We may have to have somebody else be the fifth guy. We've always got to take five. We've been talking about it, but we haven't been able to solidify anything."

Zook spoke along similar lines.

"We've got some work to do. Houston Bates is a pretty good football player. And those two freshmen have a chance to step up. I think both of them are beginning to do the things you need them to do. Everybody's got to step up and play, offense and defense, to make up for it. That's what families do."

Defensive end Whitney Mercilus is beginning to attract attention for his play at defensive end. While he realizes opponents will likely begin to double team him, he is excited to see his defensive line receive well-earned praise.

"It's definitely given our line a different view to the public. They've actually given us a little more credit than they did in the past. We've definitely stepped up our game a lot. Being a sack leader keeps me more motivated to do my best every week."

The Illini were among the nation's leaders in red zone defense, until the Northwestern game. Koenning emphasized that in practice this week.

"The big difference in the Northwestern game and the other games this year, against Northwestern we gave up touchdowns in the red zone. All year, we had been holding them to field goals. We've got to do a better job in the red zone."

Defensive depth would be helped if SAM linebacker Ashante Williams was ready to contribute. But after being reinstated three weeks ago, he still has some catching up to do.

"He's still learning to play," Koenning reminds. "It's hard fitting in when he's not at camp. It's pretty obvious when you don't practice. One of the best golfers of all time missed a bunch of practice, and he couldn't just come back and go."

One concern for the UI this week is learning how to handle success. It's been 60 years since the Illini started 5-0 in a football season; it is important the players don't take anything for granted. That can lead to painful reversals. Wily veteran Allen knows the keys to continued success.

"Just make it routine. You get used to winning, even though you know we can still fix things. Even though we're 5-0, there's still a lot of things we can fix on offense, defense and special teams. We've just got to stay humble and keep a level head.

"A lot of guys are just coming to this. Maybe they don't know how hard it is to win a college football game. I've experienced bad seasons. I know how easy it is to lose a game. I just tell the guys to appreciate it and continue to work hard."

Zook says his team had some of its best practices of the season this week. Hopefully, that will translate into success on the first road venture at Indiana Saturday.

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