Zook Says Time To Move On From Tough Loss

The emotions have come and gone. The disappointment of a lost opportunity remains, but not without hope that this season, at long last, may be a little different. On the heels of a gut-wrenching 40-34 defeat at the hands of rival Missouri, a game in which Illinois almost overcame the loss of its starting quarterback and a host of turnovers, the Illini move forward with newfound confidence.

"We really are close," coach Ron Zook said Monday. "I know I've said that before and I know people don't want to hear the same things. But I really believe it. Now more than ever. But you know what? Now it is time to win. I've told our coaches that. Now it is time to win."

Indeed, the refrain has been familiar to Illinois fans. They only have seen one winning season this decade. Not since 2002 has the Illini won more than three games in a season. In fact, seven times in the last 11 years, Illinois has finished with three wins or fewer. Not since 2002 two have the Illini won more than three in a season.

But in his third year, Zook is starting to sense a changing of the times. There is a confidence, a belief that it will change. In fact, changing the culture of losing will be the biggest challenge present. Getting the Illinois players to play hard has been mission accomplished.

"They really played hard Saturday," Zook said of his team. "I mean really played hard. And they never quit. When you are down 24 in the second half and your quarterback is sitting over there with me, it's easy to quit. But our guys never did. I'm proud of them for that. I told them that.

"But I also told them that being proud of them for effort isn't enough. We have to start finding a way to win games. I think everyone understands that."

For that reason, Zook said he wants everyone looking ahead, not back. He wants them positive, not negative.

"That is what I told the coaches today (Monday)," Zook said. "We need to be upbeat. We're all devastated we didn't find a way to win. But they know how close we are. We all know it. So let's be upbeat and positive, practice like crazy and start winning."

That starts with this week's home game against Western Illinois.

"We need to be ready to play our best," Zook said. "We need to play hard and we need to win. We need to treat every team like it is the toughest challenge on our schedule. Every team."

As the offense continues to evolve, Zook made it clear the pressure will be on the defense to carry the torch for now.

"They have a chance to be a special defense," Zook said. "We need them."

The defense and special teams responded Saturday with many big plays, including Vontae Davis blocking a punt and recovering it for a touchdown.

"Vontae played well, but he can play better," Defensive co-coordinator Dan Disch said. "We all can. We held a pretty good offense (eighth in the nation last year) to just 23 points. But we know that is too many."

Zook reiterated that Juice Williams will start the game at quarterback, that his head injury has healed. He also complimented the play of Eddie McGee.

"Eddie played very well," Zook said. "We can't turn the ball over, he knows that. And he will get better at that, as the others have. That just takes time."

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