Zook Reminds Illini Still Have Six Wins

A head football coach wears many hats. One of his most difficult jobs is consoling fans while encouraging players and assistants after losses. The Purdue loss Saturday was tough for the Fighting Illini to accept, but for whatever reason they didn't play well. Illini coach Ron Zook must find positives despite initial reactions so his players can live to fight another day.

Illinois coaches, players and fans are all hurt by the loss to Purdue, but they must put it behind them and prepare for the next game. Such is life in major college football. Illini head coach Ron Zook is as disappointed as anyone, but he must balance the concerns with a positive approach.

"We're a lot better off than some people are. We've just got to learn from this, correct our mistakes and keep going. Not walking around feeling sorry for ourselves. First of all, no one cares. Number two, it's not gonna help us."

Will there be major changes this week?

"We talked about that as a staff. We would change if we felt it would help us. If we had the answer, it would be easy. Everybody's got opinions. Like I told the staff, we are 6-2. I know people forget that. We've done some things that are good, and we have to continue to do things that are good."

The Illini played lethargically most of the day Saturday. They were playing their 8th straight week, midterms were a concern, and the pressure of winning in the rugged Big 10 is constant. They were having fun early in the season, but they seemed anything but fun-loving yesterday. To a man, they all care about winning. Is it possible they tighten up because they care too much?

"I think so, I really do. I don't know too many players who have fun when you lose. When we were 6-0, sometimes it didn't seem like it was fun. The fun is in the locker room after the game. Playing loose, playing with emotion, not worrying about making mistakes...just playing."

The paradox facing the Illini now is the need to get back to their loose, fun-loving days in the face of a losing streak. That is the task of the coaches and players this week. It is up to Zook and staff to remind them to realize how close they are to playing well and not dwell on failure.

"They watched the tape. They know it's a play here, a play there. It's not every play. We've got to go back and take the last quarter and a half and say, 'This is what we have to do.' I know people get tired of hearing 'if, if, if,' but if we play like that the whole game,...We've got to play 60 minutes the way we're capable of playing, and they didn't do that."

Many blame a conservative, inefficient offense for the loss, but Zook says everyone must share the blame.

"All three phases were involved in the loss. If Justin (DuVernois) catches the punt, they don't get the ball inside the 20. If defensively we don't give up the big plays, they don't score. So there's a lot of things. We all had a piece of the game."

Illini Nation frustrations with Special Teams are boiling over. Yesterday, punts and punt returns received the brunt of their fury. DuVernois's bobbled snap gave PU great field position.

"Justin felt the rush, he took his eyes off the ball. That's why he fumbled the ball a little bit. I think Justin's gonna be fine. It's a very serious mistake obviously, but he's a freshman. There's no other way to learn that other than being back there."

Illini punt return statistics showed negative yardage. Already one of the worst in the country in that statistic, Zook at least had a solution for the negative yardage, although it is doubtful he will resort to it.

"I can fix that. All I need to do is tell Ryan (Lankford) to fair catch it. If he fair catches instead of trying to make something happen, then he doesn't have to take any negative yards. If I was worried about that stat, I'd tell him that anytime there's people around you, fair catch it. Then you don't have to worry about trying to make something happen."

,P>The offensive line has not played up to its preseason hype. Part of the problem might be the fact a redshirt freshman is seeing his first time at tackle, and the rest of the linemen might feel a need to compensate for him. Whatever, Michael Heitz has played reasonably well but had to be replaced by fellow redshirt freshman Simon Cvijanovic early in the game. Zook was pleased with Cvijanovic's play but says next week's starter will be determined in practice.

"I'm very proud of Simon. He did a great job. I think Michael has done a great job. He's probably hit a wall a little bit. But now that he's got a little pressure off him, he'll come back quick. I think he'll handle it extremely well. Simon knows he's gonna play a lot more. I'm very proud of the way he played yesterday. They'll both play this week. This is a great defensive wall we're getting ready to play."

Zook explained the reason for the change.

"In the seven plays, he (Heitz) had a false start, he gave up a sack and something else. He struggled for whatever reason. The initial plan was to give him a break to clear his head. But Simon was doing well, so we left Simon in there. Michael has played pretty well this year, up until yesterday. We kind of saw it coming last week. That's why we had a plan ready, just in case. That's not why we lost the game."

On a positive note, senior running back Jason Ford played well.

"I thought he played his best game. I thought he played extremely well. He caught the ball, he some really good second effort, third effort. I said in the staff meeting, I think we need to put the saddle on him and ride him a little bit. I don't mean the other guys aren't gonna play."

Zook knows he sounds like a broken record, but one of his jobs is to keep everyone's spirit up. Plus, he sincerely believes in his team.

"We didn't play the way we're capable of playing, for whatever reason. Purdue played well. We're on the right track; we're doing the right things. We believe in what we're doing. We are gonna go to Happy Valley and play like we're capable of playing."

Always looking for positive reinforcement, Zook reminds the Illini upset Penn State in Happy Valley last year. He says that memory should encourage his players.

"I think it will. They know it can be done. Regardless of what they hear all week, they know it can be done because we did it."


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