Illini Seek To Rekindle Formula For Passion

The Fighting Illini football team has done some soul-searching after losses the past two weeks. The players realize they didn't play as well as they are capable and made correctable mistakes. Sometimes a slight loss of intensity or focus is all it takes to separate a winner from a loser. The Illini are maintaining confidence as they prepare for the rest of the season.

Illinois head coach Ron Zook and his coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning all took different approaches to assisting their players this week in practice after they suffered their second consecutive defeat last Saturday. Koenning worked on positive reinforcement for what they have done well. Petrino chose to work harder to reach perfection.

Zook knew he needed to keep his team's confidence up and reminded them of what they are and can be.

"This is a pretty good football team; we've done some pretty good things. I think people lose sight of that fact with all the noise in the system."

The Illini play best when they are relaxed and having fun. After two straight losses and a tough upcoming game at Penn State, it would be easy to care too much and tighten up. Zook wants to prevent that by finding the magical balance where pressure can be transformed into a loose intensity.

"They've got to go out there with a sense of urgency, no question. But we can't go out there and play tight. We've got to go out there and let it go."

Petrino also reminded both the team and its fans it is a quality outfit. He redoubled his efforts this week to get his players back to the level they attained earlier in the season.

"We've got to come out and have great practices, keep busting. You've got to believe in something, and we know what we believe in. We're not gonna panic and change things. We have to keep working hard and executing. It's not like we're 2-6. We're 6-2.

"We've got to have all 11 guys have great practices all week. I believe in the way we're practicing. I believe in what we're doing. We're gonna keep doing it and keep improving. We'll get better; that's my belief. We're just gonna keep grinding.

"The best thing about sports is it teaches you about life. You're gonna have hard times in life. What are you gonna do, give up 80 and cry about it? Or are you gonna fight and work and get better? That's what it's all about. That's about training them to become better men."

The mental state of the Illini players is tantamount. If they let the two previous weeks destroy their confidence, they will struggle the rest of the season. To a man, the players interviewed this week all said their belief in themselves is intact.

"I think this team has a lot of confidence," star receiver A.J. Jenkins declared. "Obviously we have two losses, but that doesn't take away from us being a good team. I think we still have the attitude we're a real good team."

Senior lineman Jeff Allen accepted his leadership role this week.

"Guys look up to me, so I've got to keep my confidence. If a leader loses confidence, it can definitely go downhill. I'm completely confident in the offense and defense, special teams. I feel like we're gonna get things going.

"We've lost no confidence at all. Obviously, we've got to correct some things in order to get back on track, but I think we're gonna make it happen."

Senior cornerback Tavon Wilson feels the same way.

"It ain't hard to keep my spirits up. We still feel like we're a good football team. We've just got to try that much harder to turn it back around, give more energy and effort to win this game."

After 8 straight games without a bye week, Illini players may have lost a little of their quickness and enthusiasm due to myriad bumps and bruises and the strain of constant mental pressure preparing for quality teams week after week. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase can't speak for everyone, but he appears to be getting a second wind.

"I'm a little banged up. Obviously, you get a little banged up here and there. But I had one of the best workouts I've had (Monday). I ran six sprints. I was a little tired and sore on the first one, but I told myself not to be a baby. I ended up having a great workout. That's what you have to do this time in the season. My arm feels good, and I feel I'm throwing the ball pretty well."

Illini players encounter bandwagon jumpers wherever they go. There is always concern they will be adversely affected. According to Scheelhaase, the Illini may be immune.

"It was unusual when they were on the band wagon, to be honest with you. I'm not too worried about what other people are saying. We're used to it. It can change dramatically with one win or one loss."

Blame for the losses has been placed by fans and media on every aspect of the team, especially the coaching staff. Certainly, there were many loose ends exposed the last two weeks. But sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown proposes a plausible explanation that few have considered to this point: success created overconfidence.

"I think we just got kind of lax. 6-0, a lot of guys, myself included, hadn't experienced that. So we thought we'd arrived. Going out there and not playing with the same mindset and energy that we did early in the season. It showed up on the field.

"I think we came out kind of lax against Purdue too, and they put it on us. The key to us winning is getting psyched up."

Brown encouraged his teammates to follow his lead and return to the all-out effort of early season games.

"We want to go out with intensity and having fun. That's the biggest thing. Go out and have fun and keep things fresh week to week. We're not flying around like we should be. If we go out there and fly around, plays will come to us."

There were plenty of details discussed and practiced this week. Improving the running game, including taking advantage of the recent improvement by Jason Ford. Getting more receivers involved in the offense. Eliminating costly mistakes at crucial times. Blocking and tackling better. Improving special teams. On and on it went, typical after a couple losses.

But probably the biggest thing the Illini worked on was returning to the formula that served them well early in the year. If they give great effort every play and not worry about the results, winning will take care of itself.

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