Fighting Illini Benefit From Bye Week

The Fighting Illini football team enjoyed a much earned rest during its bye week. Bodies had a brief chance to heal, and the frustrations of the past three games gradually faded into the sunset. The Illini are now ready physically and mentally to take on Michigan in Memorial Stadium Saturday; their practices reflected a renewed enthusiasm for the task at hand.

Illinois players and coaches alike appeared to benefit from their bye week. Star receiver A.J. Jenkins perhaps said it best.

"Everyone's pretty good. We've had a chance to catch up on our school work. Have a chance to be a student, and have some free time to relax. It feels pretty good.

"You play nine games straight, that's a long stretch for me and any team. So it's a good thing to relax a little bit. Let my body rest up a little bit so against Michigan I will be a lot faster.

"I think the bye week helped us a lot. Think about what we've been doing wrong the past three games we lost. And then try to get them corrected on the field."

Bodies take longer than three days to heal completely from all the trauma induced by nine straight hard-hitting games. But quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase says every little bit helps.

"We were able to get some rest and some treatment, which is always nice. As a quarterback, if you can rest a little bit and have plenty of time to prepare, it definitely feels good."

Scheelhaase bruised his shoulder earlier in the year, but he says it has no restrictions.

"Not at all. It actually feels kind of good. It's kind of weird, it sticks up a little funny. My mom noticed it. It looks funny, but it feels fine."

He says a return to fundamentals during three bye week practices did the team some good.

"We kind of went back to basics, like we did in Rantoul. You're getting back to the fundamentals and building confidence. I think it's been very helpful for us as an offense."

Offensive tackle Jeff Allen said the opportunity to refocus may have been a bigger blessing than physical healing.

"Definitely. We had a little time off to rest our bodies a little bit. It was a time to think about what we've been doing and where we need to be to get better. As leaders, we have to step up and be better as leaders. Set the example by coming out every day to practice with a good attitude."

Defensive end Whitney Mercilus says three days off is not sufficient to heal bodies completely. But in a pleasant surprise, his national sack lead is still intact despite the week off.

"It was kind of a shock to me after the bye last week. It's a goal to keep in mind, to keep that lead going. Get my name out there and put the team on the map also. Let people know we have good players here also. It's definitely been a blessing."

Illinois head coach Ron Zook saw definite signs the bye week helped.

"I think we are a refreshed football team. After nine straight weeks, I think our guys needed it. I think open dates are important for a lot of reasons. Mental and physical, giving your body a chance to relax and, if nothing else, to not have your stomach wound so tight.

"I think they were hurt last week. But I think the way we practiced, they're looking forward to getting back out there and going."

Illini offensive leaders did some soul searching these past two weeks. They have struggled generating offense, especially the first quarters of games. The two weeks have given them time to renew their focus.

"I think it comes down to execution," Scheelhaase states. "You look at the first ten plays of our last three games, and there were a lot of MAs, missed assignments. You can't have those early in the game. You can't have those because you need to get going. So if we just execute, we can be more explosive early in the game.

"We script the first few plays, so we definitely shouldn't have missed assignments. That's on us as players to make sure we don't do that."

Scheelhaase can't confirm he's been in a personal slump recently. However, he has definitely noticed the quality of defensive play working against him.

"Yeah, you've got to give credit where credit is due. There's definitely things I need to do better, and we need to do better as an offense."

Allen believes he knows the solution to offensive woes.

"There's no secret to it, we've just got to be tough and grind through it. There's a lot of different things we're doing good. I think we're just taking turns making mistakes as a total offense."

For offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, the solution is simple. Block better, run better, pass better and protect better. Execute better. For all the seeming problems, Petrino says the big picture still looks promising.

"We're 6-3. We win another and we're 7-3, and that's pretty darn good. It took us until the end of the year last year to get six wins. And somebody told me it's been twenty seasons since we went to two bowl games in a row. We've just got to keep battling, keep fighting. I expect us to play well this weekend."

Starting guard Hugh Thornton is likely out for the Michigan game. He had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee a week ago Monday to remove some loose cartilage, and he is doubtful for Michigan. Junior Tyler Sands played in his absence at Penn State, but redshirt freshman Alex Hill has earned playing time also according to line coach Joe Gilbert.

"Right now, we're going back and forth. We've had an even rotation for the week. Both of them have had a decent week of practice. Both will play.

"Tyler has been going at both guards, so has Alex. Tyler's been working hard; I think he does some things well. He knows what to do, he's played multiple positions for us. He's not always consistent getting it done. Tyler's a tough kid and plays hard. Alex gives us a little bit bigger body in there, and a little bit more athletic ability."

One thing the Illini have not been able to put past them during their time off is the hostility shown by some fans toward their coaches. Jenkins says he wants to win for Coach Zook.

"Definitely. We hear a lot of buzz. Coach tells us to always focus on our team and work hard every day. That way we have a chance to win the game. So that's what we do."

Allen agrees.

"The coaches get a lot of it. The coaches are doing a great job. We as players have to go out there and play for them."

Mercilus realizes the best way to support his coaches is to win more games.

"Definitely. The guys are working their butts off. We have three games left plus a bowl game to make a statement.

"We have two ranked opponents coming into our house. It's there on a silver platter for us. It could put us back in the limelight like the first half of the season. These games will get us back on the right track and get our fan base back."

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