Circling the Wagons

A players-only meeting prior to the Wisconsin game led to better play and something for Illinois to build on.

CHAMPAIGN – Tim Beckman challenged the seniors on his football team to step up the leadership in the week prior to the Wisconsin game.

Cornerback Terry Hawthorne and defensive end Michael Buchanan took the instruction head on, calling a players-only meeting in the hotel in Madison the night before kickoff.

With a season quickly headed south, the meeting was wanted, or needed, by the entire team, according to safety Steve Hull.

"It was just kind of stating what we already knew, which was we're not playing the way that we're capable of playing," he said. "There were definitely conversations in there that were a little bit awkward, a little bit tight. But they were things that needed to be talked about."

Hawthorne and Buchanan, joined by fellow senior Tommy Davis, did most of the talking, but the floor was open to any and all. Juniors Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown gave long speeches. Hull and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase chirped in, too.

"It wasn't necessarily calling anybody out," Buchanan said. "It was kind of putting an emphasis on everybody is important. Even a guy that's not playing and knowing he's not going to play one snap, it's giving energy to somebody. Like little things I think we're really missing."

The meeting following the usual team get together, led by the coaches. It was important, Buchanan says, for the players to gather later and discuss matters among peers, without the coaches present.

"I think it holds more weight when you have the seniors and guys kind of get up there and talk things out," he said. "Its kind of easy listening to your peers, listening to the coaches, the coaches are always talking, saying things. I think we had some guys stand up there and get things off their chest and speak their mind. I think that held more weight."

Many things were said about the crushing losses to Arizona State, Louisiana Tech and Penn State to that point, games that exposed a team that was supposed to at least be competitive, especially on defense.

The overall message, though, was the team needed to relax. The offseason coaching changes produced a feeling of the need to do too much, Hull said. That created unnecessary pressure, which led to mistakes.

"I feel like we've been kind of shelled a little bit, meaning that we're kind of prohibiting ourselves in ways we never did before," he said. "I think that the point of the meeting was to kind of go out there with our swagger and be out there having fun, is basically, I think we've been playing tight, thinking a lot, for whatever reason I have no idea."

Said Buchanan: "We just want to get back to focusing on the play at hand and play every play as hard as we could. That's one of the things we talked about in the meeting, is just enjoying it. It was kind of, we were making it more than it was, like it wasn't fun playing football."

The results on Saturday were better. The defense held Wisconsin to seven points in the first half. Hull had an interception that set up the offense for a score. And the front seven held Badgers tailback Montee Ball in check.

Through three quarters, the defense looked a lot like last year's unit, flying around the ball, handling assignments and playing with a hyped attitude. The meeting may not have been wholly responsible, but it surely helped.

"I think the guys really responded to that, and I think our play showed, just from the beginning of the game everybody was fired up, everybody felt accountable," Buchanan said.

"I really think we did a better job getting that back, kind of getting our fire and getting our juice back."

Stumbles in the fourth quarter provided a final score that wasn't indicative of a close game. The team didn't reach the desired goal of winning. But the weekend gave the team something to build on. The meeting provided evidence for the charge that the players still care.

"I think it's known that every championship team is player driven," Hull said. "I think that's something that we're working on becoming is a player driven team. We have glimpses of that, but I don't think it's as consistent as it needs to be."

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