Illini Honor Seniors As They Await Badgers

There will be a lot of emotions displayed on Zuppke Field Saturday as the Fighting Illini host Wisconsin on Senior Day. Besides honoring seniors in their last home game, the Illini will dedicate the game to fallen teammate Trulon Henry and try to reverse a four game losing streak. Facing their third straight top 25 team will be no easy task.

Illinois will honor the following seniors before their last home game of the 2011 season with Wisconsin Saturday: Jeff Allen, Sean Anderson, Brandon Clear, Jack Cornell, Derek Dimke, Jason Ford, Trulon Henry, A.J. Jenkins, Wisdom Onyegbule, Troy Pollard, Ronald Stewart, Fred Sykes, Craig Wilson and Tavon Wilson. It is hoped Illini fans will arrive early to salute these players.

Tavon Wilson will have trouble keeping his emotions in check Saturday.

"Obviously it's gonna be very emotional. I've had some ups and downs. It's my last home game, so it's gonna mean a lot to me. I expect everybody to come out there and give it everything they have, like they do every week."

Allen has continued his leadership role as he prepares for his final home game.

"It's very emotional. I've been here four years. Going out for my last game in Memorial Stadium is a very emotional situation for me. Like I told my senior teammates, the best thing we can do about this is play our hearts out."

Their special ceremony precedes an important date with the powerful Wisconsin Badgers. Illini coach Ron Zook doesn't pull any punches when discussing his upcoming opponent.

"I don't think there's a question they're as good as they're perceived. They have a great running back, they have a great quarterback, they play defense. They play extremely hard and extremely well.

"Their offensive line is bigger than the Green Bay Packers; they're big guys who have done a great job. Their quarterback has come in and really fit into their system and what they try to do extremely well."

Quarterback Russell Wilson transferred to Wisconsin from North Carolina State for his senior season and leads the nation in three statistical categories. But he is far from the only weapon. Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning uses one of his clever analogies when describing the problem of containing the Badger offense.

"That's like asking the question, when it's a hail storm, which piece of ice are you most worried about? If they're hitting everywhere, it's all of them.

"Wilson was at North Carolina State, and I don't really remember him very much. We played him when he was young. That crew in front of him is pretty salty. And he's obviously gotten a lot better. He throws some darts. He does a fantastic job with their offense. He gets them into the right plays."

Tavon Wilson has great respect for his Badger namesake.

"He's really good. They run the ball pretty well, so he comes off play-action and throws the ball pretty well all around the field. They've got some good receivers, so he does a great job getting the ball into the playmakers' hands. And he can pull the ball down and run it himself."

Wisconsin is primarily a running team. Koenning's guys must be ready to face fast and powerful Montee Ball, who has lost weight this year, running behind their huge line.

"I think he falls in with a lot of Wisconsin backs, he's a powerful guy. Obviously, when you stream down, you improve your explosiveness. He'll still run through your butt. We're gonna throw some guys at him like most teams do. You've got to use some dbs in run fits. Good luck. We've had to tackle (Jason) Ford back in camp, so we'll see."

National sack leader Whitney Mercilus will be hard-pressed to add to his total, but he likes the challenge.

"They basically steamrolled this whole season. They're powerful, they're big. Each one of my teammates and myself look forward to the competition. We're looking forward to this Saturday."

Illini coaches remind their players to wear their "big boy pads" this week. That is fine with Tavon Wilson.

"You've got to love this type of game as a football player, a competitor. They're a balanced offense, but they want to run the football. They want to establish the run, so you just go out there and play football. That's what you play for."

Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino has his hands full with an equally strong Badger defense.

"They're good on defense. (Linebacker Chris Borland) is a good football player, and they fly around. They're tough and hard-nosed. They're a good team. We've really got to take care of ourselves this week and get better. Get ready to play fast and as hard as we can to give ourselves a chance to be successful."

Allen has great respect for the UW front seven.

"They have two linebackers who lead the team in tackles. They are really good, they run to the ball. They have some pretty solid inside guys on their defensive line."

The Illini offense has been in hibernation the past few weeks. As much as it needs to score points, moving the chains is equally important to keep its defense rested according to Petrino.

"That would really help. It would be nice to have a couple 12, 13, 14 play drives. Let their offense stay on the sidelines."

Normally, Petrino loves the challenge of taking on a strong defense straight up, and let the best man win. But given the underdog nature of his team and the need to get the offense untracked, is he considering a few trick plays this week?

"You know, I think sometimes you've got to do stuff, do some different things. There's time to change things up and do a little bit different here and there. Maybe this is the week, maybe not. We'll see."

On paper, the Illini have little chance of victory. But don't tell the players that. Ashante Williams, receiving his first start of the season replacing the fallen Henry at SAM, is confident he and his teammates are ready for the task ahead.

"I look at it like it's just another opponent. They're a good team, no disrespect intended. But I feel like we're good, everybody on this team is good. We're just as good as they are. Everybody puts their pads on the same way, everybody buckles their helmets the same way. The most physical team will win."

Tavon Wilson also sees an opportunity to defy the odds makers.

"We have a pretty tough challenge this week, and we look forward to it. It's probably our biggest challenge all year. But I don't think it's nothing we can't handle if we go out there and do our jobs."

Mercilus says there is nothing to lose and everything to gain.

"We like being underdogs. There's no pressure on us. It just makes us that much hungrier to gain that 'W.' Nobody's giving us a chance, but we want to make a statement."

Nathan Scheelhaase believes the team will rally around Henry and be inspired for a great effort.

"We have a fallen comrade. I think it can definitely inspire some guys. We know he would give anything to be out there with us. I know it's still his senior day, it's all of our seniors. So things like that should amp you up a little more."

Regardless of the odds, Zook says the Illini are unwilling to lay down without a fight.

"I think our team's excited about this challenge. It's a great challenge. There's nobody in this state or anywhere else that probably gives us an opportunity to win. That's why they keep score, and that's why you play the game. We're gonna play to the best of our ability."


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