Fighting Illini Maintain Positive Attitudes

Practices at Illinois this week were interesting for a number of reasons. With school out for Thanksgiving, the players had an opportunity to practice and study film without academic stresses dividing their focus. And despite a five game losing streak, the team remains upbeat, realizing it still has much reason to play well at Minnesota Saturday.

Illinois coach Ron Zook has been an inspiration to the Illinois football team this week. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is impressed.

"In these last two years, I've seen a lot of change in Coach Zook in terms of how positive he is. How much he's able to focus on things to help us not get distracted. It helps us out a lot as players.

"If your leader, your commander, is getting shook, it would be harder as a player. It gives us a new mindset and takes any pressure off of us. Our morale is good, and that says a lot about what Coach Zook is doing."

Defensive end Whitney Mercilus appreciates Zook's approach.

"Coach Zook has learned you can't get negative because it brings in more negativity. The more positive you are, the better your players will do.

"These past five games have been a stress, but you still can't get down on yourselves. You've still got to believe; that is what Coach Zook has told us. We have to withstand the onslaught no matter what. Keep a positive attitude in the face of adversity."

Senior receiver A.J. Jenkins also praises Zook's attitude.

"Coach Zook is still giving us hope. Eight wins would be a pretty good season. And two bowl wins would be good for this class. We still have a lot to play for."

It would be easy for Zook to express his frustrations the way the last five games have gone, plus the possibility his job at Illinois is in jeopardy. But he is not letting personal feelings interfere with the job of preparing his team to take on Minnesota Saturday. He talked to the team a little bit about bowl possibilities and other issues.

"I talked to them about how much the seniors have riding on this game. We talked about a lot of things. The big question, I've talked to them about that."

Zook has an attentive audience. Scheelhaase reminds that, as a group, this team has special qualities.

"The best thing about our team, we like being together. We like being in the locker room with each other. We like opportunities to compete together. We hang out, not only when we're in the Stadium but outside.

"For sure, some guys may be down. But when we step in the locker room, all of a sudden you've got a guy who's fired up and ready to go for practice, that gets you going. He's one of your best friends, so if he's getting ready, why won't you be?

"It's different guys. For me, it's Ryan Lankford. We feed off each other. Miles (Osei) and Reilly (O'Toole) are in the quarterback room. It helps all of us having those guys.

"I think the receivers are the same way, they feed off each other. They've been working on their end zone celebrations these last two weeks. Things aren't always gonna go your way, so you have to make things fun. Then you're not dealing with morale issues."

Of course, players who made mistakes that contributed to the losing streak may have more problems healing wounds than others. Zook was asked how freshman Justin DuVernois was doing after his second muffed punt snap this season gave Wisconsin an easy touchdown.

"Justin told me that he's getting some bad emails, and I told him that's kind of bad, but it's part of it. I can remember like it was yesterday when I was sitting in his living room with his parents telling him, `Hey, this is not as easy as you think.'

"He came from a great program and didn't punt that much, and he's had some things happen. But I think he'll learn from it. (Monday) he knocked the socks off of it. But it's a lot harder when you're out there on the field. It's like the driving range and the tee box, there's a big difference."

The Illinois offense is still trying to put two halves together with one game left in the regular season. Jenkins says offensive coordinator Paul Petrino has not taken his foot off the accelerator.

"Coach P. still coaches hard, real intense."

Petrino wants his guys playing as hard as he coaches.

"You've got to play one play at a time as hard as you can. Sustain your fire and your passion. I think what hurt us first drive of the second half, we got a first down and Darius (Millines) fumbled. You've got to hold onto the football. The next two plays, we got a first down and then threw an interception.

"You can't turn the ball over and beat good teams. You've got to stay on the field because most defenses get tired. If you go three-and-out, any defense will play well because they're always fresh."

After four weeks trying to beat stacked defenses with their base offense, Petrino went to a hurry-up against Wisconsin. He explains the decision.

"That's something we went to out of need, to be honest with you. If you can line up and knock people off the ball, you will do that more often than not. It was something where we had to adjust and find some way to move the ball.

"If you can run the ball, you don't throw as many interceptions. That's something we were a lot better at last year. We ran the ball a lot more, ran two backs a lot more and took pressure off the quarterback. It was something we had to go to last week to get the ball into our receivers' hands more. It's something we've got to continue to do and work on."

Scheelhaase has learned to run the 2-minute offense well. He likes the advantages of a hurry-up approach.

"It puts the defense back on their heels. It helps when we change personnel groups. That's something you don't often see with hurry-ups around the country. The defense isn't able to shift in and change their personnel groups.

"We work on it a lot. It's something we emphasize in practice. I think we got so good at it the last year and a half or so, I think we're really excited when we get into that mode. You're not thinking as much, you're just playing. It's not all tricky stuff, it's all base stuff. It's playing fast, getting lined up and really wearing the defense out."

Offenses need to feel they have momentum on their side. Getting first downs is a big part of that. Scheelhaase says the hurry-up adds to the positive vibes.

"When we go into that fast phase and get a couple first downs, it feels like things are really going. Especially if you get a couple big plays in there, it really helps out. When you're able to get the defense on its heels, that's how you want to attack. That's been helping us."

Petrino coached from the sideline last week and may do so again at Minnesota. He feels his energy helped the offensive line in particular. He reveals insights about line play that might surprise some people but also provide one hint as to why the offense has struggled against strong defenses.

"It's probably easier to call plays from upstairs. But I thought I was able to bring some passion to the line, especially the first half. They were blitzing us a lot first half, and that helped us to keep them off balance and run the ball more.

"In the second half, they quit blitzing. So we didn't get to those run checks. We had to line up and whip them, and we weren't able to get that done well enough."

Petrino may use Scheelhaase more than O'Toole this week. His explanation also hints at a difference between last year's offense and now.

"It's a feel thing. When Nathan's in there, at least he gives you the chance to run the quarterback.

"In the future, it will benefit Reilly if we can get two backs back there and smash people. Then he wouldn't have to make every single play. Nathan's ability to run at least gives you a running game when you're going up-tempo."

The Illini defense is nationally ranked in multiple categories, a big improvement over last season. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning wants nothing less.

"Our expectations at the beginning of the year were to be a top 10 defense. That hasn't slowed down, that hasn't stopped being the case. We've got to have high expectations. You shoot for the stars and maybe hit the moon. That's the way we try to prepare them. The enemy of the best is to say, 'That's good enough.' There's a lot of truth to that."

The Illini defense held powerful Wisconsin to more than 100 yards less than any of their other 2011 opponents. That was despite missing three regulars to injury, SAM Trulon Henry and safeties Supo Sanni and Steve Hull.

"Pat Nixon-Youman came in and did a good job at free safety. There were a couple fits that weren't perfect, but it was as much a linebacker's fault as his. Tavon (Wilson) came in at cat safety. One of the safeties back there has to get us in the right call if we have double calls. Tavon took that role that Steve had been doing so much of the year."

Ashante Williams asserted himself well replacing Henry in his first major action of the season.

"Ashante played well. I was proud of him. I think he was excited to play. He didn't choke, he didn't play poorly. He played well and made some tackles."

Cornerback Terry Hawthorne led all Illini with 15 tackles plus a forced fumble and quarterback hurry.

"The guy that was a complete beast was Terry Hawthorne at boundary corner. He played a linebacker that can cover. He was phenomenal, and I'm very proud. We needed that kind of effort out of him. We need that again this weekend."

Koenning loses two linebackers to graduation, but he believes Williams, Houston Bates, Henry Dickinson and Ralph Cooper will be able to fill in nicely next year.

"We lose Trulon and Ian (Thomas), but those other guys are gonna be fine. I think they'll make as much progress as Jonathan Brown has made this year. They can do it."

Brown is a candidate for post season honors as a sophomore. Koenning praises his natural instincts for linebacker, but he says Brown sometimes causes problems for the defense when he isn't disciplined. Brown agrees, so he is continuing to learn and improve.

"I might be playing a little bit better (than I thought before the season). I set some goals at the beginning of the season, and I've met some of them. I say I'm right on track. I'm proud of what I've done so far.

"Linebacker is a position where you definitely have to have discipline. If you don't have discipline, it causes a lot of gaps in the defense, and you miss a lot of assignments. My biggest challenge is bringing my instincts in with discipline. Playing within a scheme and not trying to do too much.

"Actually, I play better when I play with discipline. I'm able to just worry about what I'm able to do. When I do that, I seem to make more plays."

Zook says guard Hugh Thornton could have played last week and is "chomping at the bit" to get back in there. Hull should be back as well. He is hopeful for Donovonn Young, who has made steady progress from a sprained ankle.

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