Practice Week Intense And Productive For UI

There are always more questions about the Illini football team after a loss than a victory. Are their mistakes correctable? What about special teams? Will they be able to bounce back this week? These are some of the myriad concerns confronting the Illini as they travel to Purdue to face an improving team in front of a Homecoming crowd.

Illinois lost it's first game of the season last Saturday after winning six in a row. Ohio State exposed imperfections that could derail a promising season if not corrected. For instance, dominant OSU defensive backs forced dropped passes on third down situations. Some felt they arrived early, but regardless offensive coordinator Paul Petrino expects his receivers to sharpen their games.

"We killed ourselves on third downs. We had three third downs in the first half that we dropped that we should have converted, and we had one third-and-medium that we had a guy open for a touchdown and we missed him. You can't have four third-and-mediums that you don't convert because you stop yourself."

Petrino responded aggressively in practice this week to prevent reoccurrence.

"All week long, we've had them catching balls with me or someone banging them. Like a basketball game, you've got to know how they're calling the game. If they're not calling the banging, you'd better be ready to catch it when they're banging us. We've got to make sure we make that catch."

According to Petrino, the long sideline interception was the result of a misread.

"The second interception, that was a play we worked real hard on. A.J. (Jenkins) was open down the seam for a touchdown, and we didn't execute it. That's my fault. We've got to make sure we get that corrected this week."

It is easy to rely on Jenkins because he's special and having a great season. But Illinois puts more pressure on defenses when it employs multiple skilled players in the offense.

"That's what we had a big meeting about. We've all got to step up. They've got to show me in practice, as well as building up their resume. In the last quarter, Jon Davis stepped up; he showed he can make a play. At times Ryan (Lankford) made plays. At times Spencer (Harris) has. That's what this week is all about. Who's gonna step up and make a play to help us win?"

Fullback Jay Prosch agreed the Illini have lacked fire on offense at times. He says they are working to correct that, noting how sometimes winning can offer a false sense of security.

"I think we need to come out with a little more fire at the beginning of drives. We need to get that aggression back that we had last year. Just get after it and pound people. We're really working hard to get that back this week.

"After winning 6 games in a row, it's hard to have it there; you just think it's gonna be there. I think that will be a big difference in this week's game."

Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning feels his defenders may have gotten away from their fundamentals and not been as confident as needed against a strong opponent.

"I think the thing that we didn't do well in the game was, we had guys trying to do too much, they stuck their nose where it didn't belong, and it cost us. In retrospect, we're all kicking ourselves in the butt that we didn't hold them to three or none.

"Once we got used to them, to how physical and fast they were on the first took us awhile to get used to how dad gum good they are. (After that) we kind of got into a little bit of a groove."

Illini head coach Ron Zook and his staff push their players as hard as they can to achieve perfection and know everything about their opponents. Since the Illini played tight much of the game, he wondered whether too much of a good thing may have backfired.

"Maybe we put too much pressure on them. I don't know."

Regardless, the true measure of a team is how it responds after a loss. There is always fear that one loss can create a second as players remain mired in an emotional hole from losing a big game. But if Illini attitudes this week are any indication, the Illini should be ready to play well against Purdue.

"It was inspiring to come out here today (Monday)," quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase relates. "The way our coaches had us getting ready throughout the day, with meetings in the morning and being on the field in the afternoon. When you have coaches that inspire you like that, it's fun to have that type of attitude.

"No one wanted to lose the game Saturday, but it happened. It's what you're gonna do from there. You really find out about the character of the team after some adversity. Our attitude is what you want to see after a setback. From what I've seen, it doesn't guarantee anything, but it puts us in the right position."

Scheelhaase was asked if the Illini lost some of their swagger from the loss.

"That was a question in my mind as well. But when I came out on the practice field, it's not gone at all. It was inspiring to be out here with the guys. They had a bounce in their step. None of our goals are unattainable.

"Right now, our only goal is to beat Purdue. That's all we're focusing on, and that's all we should be focusing on. It's good to be around a bunch of guys with that same mentality."

Cornerback Justin Green feels the same way.

"We're fine. What happened last week is over and done with. We're just working for Purdue now. This is a brand new week, and we're focusing on our jobs."

Tight end Evan Wilson was also asked if he liked the team's attitude this week.

"Oh yeah. We're really just focusing on this week. We're trying to get the coaches out of it and try to be a player-driven team this week. And really fix things we did wrong on Saturday.

"It's definitely humbling (to be nearly shut out). Whenever you can find something you can do better, as a competitor you want to fix those and get back to that high level again. That's what we're gonna do."

Zook seemed sincere when bragging about the effort of his team this week. He especially appreciates how everyone is taking personal responsibility for their role in the loss.

"I don't know if we can ask for any more than we've gotten. It says there's maturity, ownership, they understand it's about those guys, a player-driven team. It makes you feel pretty good as a coach. The guys are taking ownership."

Special teams are still a work in progress, although they held their own with the Buckeyes in every category. Two times squib kickoffs bounced past blocker Prosch and were then fumbled by Troy Pollard, leading to poor field position. Some felt Prosch should have picked the ball up and run. He explains his responsibility on the play, although sometimes judgment calls are required.

"What they tell me to do is, if the ball is coming at me with speed, then let it go. But if it takes a bad bounce and bounces forward or stops, then I pick it up. Last week I wanted to pick up those balls, but they were still rolling by me pretty good. I knew Troy was only 5-10 yards behind me, so I let them go. But I was watching to make sure they didn't take a bad hop.

"It's hard to resist grabbing the ball when it's sitting right in front of me. But they're the returners. Unless the ball makes a bad hop, I'm not gonna touch it."

Reserve quarterback Miles Osei has been stationed at kick returner the last couple weeks. Zook explains.

"We've been working him back there. He's a good athlete, a tough guy. He could be a running back, he could be a receiver. He's still playing quarterback. He just wants to play."

The Illini are last in the Big 10 in punt returns. Sophomore Ryan Lankford has won the return job in practice. He is reliable at catching the ball, and he has the speed and moves to make big plays when the opportunity is there. It is a complex subject according to Zook.

"I think we've made some progress in our punt return game with our blocking. One guy here or one guy there missing a block, but we're getting better at it. It just takes one to get the thing going. Ryan is getting more and more confident, so he's doing a good job as well.

"This week we're playing one of the best punters in the country, so we're not gonna get many opportunities when they hang it up there."

The Illini did some good things last week too, and those should not be forgotten. For instance, Koenning singled out defensive end Whitney Mercilus (#85) and linebacker Jonathan Brown (#45) for special praise.

"There were some phenomenal plays by 85 and 45. There was a couple plays 45 made that were just, 'Wow!' There was one power where he cut the power blocker, got up off the ground and made the tackle. It was just a really 'wow' play. We've got to get a bunch of guys doing those."

Mercilus leads the nation in sacks. He admits he didn't expect it.

"Yeah, it's been a really big surprise to me. I didn't think I'd be where I am today. I have to thank my teammates for that. You can't have an excellent year without your teammates."

Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore praises his entire front.

"Whitney works hard. Everything you ask him to do, he will do that and more. He's been a great worker the whole time. Mike Buchanan has been doing well, Akeem Spence has been solid in the middle. Those guys are playing hard. They're still real young, but they've been producing."

He offered special accolades for Glenn Foster, the defensive end playing the three-technique tackle spot all fall.

"Glenn's doing a great job. I told our guys Glenn's probably the MVP. He's the guy that's had to sacrifice himself to go inside to give us a little speed in there. He hasn't had the productivity you'd like, but he's given us a presence in there. He's really made us a better front."

The offensive line is a veteran unit at four spots, and two will graduate. Zook is optimistic his future lines will be at least as good.

"Very much so. Michael (Heitz) has gotten in there early. Simon (Cvijanovic) has a lot of experience, he's done a great job. The freshmen offensive linemen we brought in this year in our opinion are the best guys we've brought in."

First things first. The Illini need to bounce back this week, put out a great effort and beat Purdue. Petrino says they're doing everything in their power to make that happen.

"You're gonna get knocked down in life. You've got to get back up fighting as hard as you can, and that's what we're gonna do."

Illini Inquirer Top Stories