Illini Still Have Much To Play For Saturday

Some years after five straight losses and elimination of season-long goals, the Fighting Illini football team might not have much left in the tank to play at Minnesota Saturday. But this year, they have plenty of reasons to give great effort. They are determined to put two good halves together and return victorious.

Illinois coach Ron Zook reminded his team it has much to play for this week at Minnesota.

"There's a lot of things riding on this game. The fifth year seniors have an opportunity to win 8 games. No one has ever graduated from the University and won two bowl games. We've got an opportunity to do that. There were only six teams that have won 8 or more games before we got here in the history of the University of Illinois. So they've got a chance to do that.

"It's the last game for a special group of seniors. I feel like some of them have been around here as long as I have. And they came here when it wasn't cool to come here. They've seen some good things and they've seen some things that aren't so good.

"But they've got a chance to do something that's never been done here and, as I told our football team on Monday, we need to do everything in our power to see that they accomplish that.

"They can still make their name permanent here. To me, that's big for them. I told them, 'It's about you guys. It isn't about me, it's about you guys. Let's get this thing together."

The list doesn't include the possibility this may be Zook's final game as Illini coach. Neither he nor the players were willing to discuss it, but players no doubt want to win one for Zook and his staff.

Whether he returns next year or not, Zook remains loyal to the Illini.

"I'm rooting for the University of Illinois. We're gonna get a heck of a test in Minnesota. It's a team that's spoiled some things for us the last couple years. We've got to do what we're capable of doing and let the chips fall where they may."

Gopher coach Jerry Kill has endured health problems in his first season at the helm, but his team has continued to battle every foe despite its 2-9 record. Zook has great respect for Kill and his staff.

"They're a well coached football team and are well coached in the special teams. They've had adversity, and he's handled it extremely well. And they're hitting on all cylinders right now, so it's going to be a great test for our football team. They have nothing to lose. They're gonna throw caution to the wind and let it go."

,P>Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase remembers how well Kill's Northern Illinois team played against the Illini last season.

"A lot of guys know he's a good coach. He's done some great things with teams he's had. Northern was as sound a team as we played all last year. We see what they did to us last year. In the second half, they definitely slowed us down.

"We're a whole lot different than last year, but we do still run some of the same stuff. I'm sure they'll try to attack it the same way."

The Minnesota offense is causing Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning to lose sleep and pull his hair out.

"What they do schematically is a pain in the butt. You've got to rework everything a little bit because of what they do. They've got so many formations. The way they use their tight ends to create two backs, quads, trips, it's almost impossible to try to prepare for all of it. If they ran every formation one time, they wouldn't duplicate one in a game.

"The offense statistically isn't what you see on film. They've moved the ball well, the last four games particularly. Last week, they turned the ball over twice in the low red zone, one with a fumble and once on a tipped ball Northwestern intercepted. You give them two more scores, and that game is even.

"They put up 24 points on Michigan State, which is the best defense in the conference. We've got to understand that looking at face value isn't what it really is. We have to be prepared to go in there and play one of our better games, or that quarterback will really embarrass us. He's special."

Koenning is referring to 240 pound dual-threat quarterback MarQueis Gray.

"He's strong, elusive. Not many make one-on-one tackles on him. He throws the ball well enough. His best throws are probably his deep throws, which is disconcerting."

Linebacker Jonathan Brown chimes in.

"He's definitely a bigger quarterback. I remember playing against him last year. He likes to run the ball. He's run-first, and he can really lower a shoulder and run a couple people over. I'm excited for that challenge."

Illini defensive end Whitney Mercilus knows Gray will be a stiff test for him and the defense.

"He's a scrambling quarterback, wildcat formations and stuff like that. He throws it from time to time, but he's definitely a dual threat. We can't take him lightly. Drop-back guys are easier to play, to tell you the truth. They can hurt you with their feet; you don't know what's gonna come at you."

Mercilus referred to Minnesota's upset victory last season as another reason to take the Gophers seriously.

"We can't take Minnesota lightly. That's a fact we've learned the hard way. You can never underestimate any opponent."

Minnesota's defense lacks name recognition, but it plays well as a unit.

"Defensively, they don't do a lot of things differently, but they play extremely hard; they're extremely well coached," Zook states. "They're not going to make a lot of mistakes, and it's hard to get big plays on them. And they're playing as a team.

"Bill Miller (assistant head coach and defensive coordinator) was on my staff at Florida, and he's done a great job. Those guys have been together forever. Bill used to talk about Coach Kill when he was at Florida with me. They're both from Kansas.

"Knowing Miller and the way he is, they've gone against each other quite a bit, trying to get better as a football team."

Senior receiver A.J. Jenkins says Illini receivers will be ready for the Minnesota secondary.

"They play a lot of cover 8, a lot of four sky. They're a pretty good defense. It's the same their coach ran at Northern Illinois. It isn't anything we haven't seen before.

"We have a chance to get open every week because of the schemes Coach P. (Paul Petrino) does. We've played against that defense a lot the whole year, so it won't be harder for us to get open."

Regardless of all the motivational factors, winning requires a complete effort from opening kickoff to final gun according to Zook.

"You can bring up all sorts of things. But this is about us playing 60 minutes. If we do that, it should be a heck of a game. If not, then we're gonna be in trouble."

Redshirt freshman Alex Hill has started the last two games at guard for the Illini. He says the team still has plenty of confidence despite the recent losing streak.

"Yes sir. We never lost our confidence. We've got to play better than we've been playing, but that won't be so much of a problem. We have a lot to play for. And we want to send these seniors out on a high note. Make sure they have something to look back on when they leave."

This team has a lot of pride. They've been a close knit unit since before the Texas Bowl, and that has continued throughout 2011. There are many reasons to play hard Saturday, but perhaps Brown provides the biggest reason of all...rewarding their year-long effort.

"We play for each other, first off. If you don't do that, you're really not playing for anything. And we've got a chance to do some things no one has ever done. So we've got a lot to play for right now. It's just keeping our attitudes up, keeping our spirits up and preparing like champions.

"We're still a really good team, regardless of the record. We've been in every game. We know we're a good team; now we've got to go out there and play like it."

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