Historic Home Game Awaits Illini

The Fighting Illini football team hosts Western Illinois University at Memorial Stadium Saturday evening at 6:00pm. The Leathernecks will be looking for a big upset that can make their entire season a success, while the Illini are looking to begin a winning streak. More than most openers, this game is filled with "firsts."

Illinois fans have a glorious opportunity to watch history being made Saturday. Let's count the ways.

* First game ever between these two in-state schools.

* First home game without Chief Illiniwek.

* First home game with the new North end bleachers, part of the construction that is transforming Memorial Stadium into a more functional and beautiful structure.

* First game with the large video scoreboard in the South end.

* First time 5000 students and Marching Illini will be able to unite the West and East bleachers with their boisterous cheerleading while seated in the North end zone. Their support so close to the field will be more intimidating for the opposition.

* First time for the new location of the Block "I." Block leaders were seen laying out cards for their stunts Tuesday. A group bolstered by 600 additional members will take up the two middle sections of the North end zone seats.

* First time fans in the East and South bleachers will be able to see the Block "I" in action since the 1970's, when a second Block "I" in the West balcony was disbanded due to lack of interest.

* First time Illini fans can watch potential superstar Arrelious Benn perform on Zuppke Field, and on his birthday no less.

Illini coaches and players are eager to inaugurate their new surroundings.

"Obviously, this is our first home game," explains Coach Ron Zook. "It's going to be exciting. It's going to make the whole stadium look different. Our guys are excited, and I think the students and band will be excited getting an opportunity to help out. I don't think it gets any better than that."

Yes, Memorial Stadium will look vastly different to those who haven't observed construction since last November. But no, this shouldn't have a negative impact on the players according to Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley.

"Our guys did a lot of their workouts with Coach Lou (Hernandez) inside the stadium, and they did their voluntary 7 on 7's there this summer, so they have seen the progress made inside. They still feel it's home."

The closeness of the enthusiastic student body to the field will likely increase the loudness of the home crowd and serve to inspire older fans to raise their decibel level. This something Coach Zook hopes for as well.

"Yes, we do think about that. But until we get in that position and see, I really think more about the win than the noise. Although I'm excited about the noise, as I begged the students and the band, we need as much noise as we can possibly get. We need to make Memorial Stadium more like Assembly Hall. That's a tough place to play."

Memorial Stadium has always been somewhat of a wind tunnel. With an opening at the North end, cold Arctic blasts had nothing to slow them down. The new North end bleachers and large scoreboard dominating the South end should make the stadium more enclosed and intimate. It will take awhile to determine how much effect these changes will have on passing and kicking.

"Yeah, you don't know what's going to happen with the wind," says Zook. "I've tried to go out there some days when it's windy, and it's a little different than it was last year. Those are things that until you play in it, and get in the wind, that you really don't know what's going to happen."

One person who might benefit from more favorable wind conditions is new Illini punter Anthony Santella.

"I got experience last weekend, and I just feel I will do a lot better that I did last weekend. I look forward to the chance to do so. My performance was mediocre (against Missouri), but I got settled in there. I know I can improve on it and do a lot better this weekend."

The Wauconda product walked on last year at Utah but transferred to Illinois for the spring semester after he didn't win the punting job there. Coach Zook encouraged Santella to walk on at Illinois.

"He wanted to come back this way. He's from the Chicago area, and I think you always have to give a guy a chance. I really believe that you can't have too many guys on a football team, and he's a guy that has punted and lost a job out there (Utah)."

"I know he really had some movement. I liked what I saw. I liked his block point. As I watched tape, well you know you get a little concerned about taking kickers that you didn't get a chance to see. I really think it's important that you get a chance to see them and how they catch the football and all those kinds of things, and the kind of hands they have. Believe it or not, that's a major thing for a punter because you know they can punt the ball, but if they have trouble catching the football and they bobble it, then it slows the process down. But I'm excited about him. Let's see what happens."

Santella can boom long punts with excellent hang time. He is working to improve the speed with which he delivers the kick.

"It was a little difficult getting used to, but last year when I was at the University of Utah, they were strict on the get-off times too. Spending a year out there and not playing was probably the best thing for me to gain experience. I learned a lot out there. I definitely have improved on it. Coach Zook helps us out, and practicing all summer has helped me cut those times down a lot."

The Illini have had a good practice week in preparation for WIU. Monday was a little sluggish as they were still recuperating from the bumps and bruises incurred against Mizzou. But their resiliency and eagerness to have a good season soon overcame their disappointment from last week's game, and they had some spirited practices.

Kevin Mitchell, Justin Harrison and Justin Sanders are all competing for the two safety positions and share time there. When the Illini go to a nickel package, Sanders is moved over to replace SAM linebacker Brit Miller. Co-Defensive Coordinator and secondary coach Curt Mallory explained the depth chart for the nickel and dime packages.

"Sanders is our first option (at nickel). Also, Bo Flowers is in the mix, and of course Garrett Edwards. Bo's always done a nice job, and he's getting better. But Justin Sanders right now is ahead of everyone."

With Travon Bellamy electing to have season-ending shoulder surgery, Coach Mallory has made a tentative decision to burn the redshirt of true freshman Marcus "Miami" Thomas as he is now listed as the fourth cornerback after Vontae Davis, Dere Hicks and Chris Duvalt.

"Yeah, I think so. We'll see if he's ready this week as it's his first time. We'll watch practice this week, and if he is full go and has the opportunity, we'll see what he can do."

Another freshman who has already seen action on special teams against Missouri is Washington, D. C. product Nate Bussey. The 6'-2", 210 pound high school teammate of Davis and Arrelious Benn has outstanding skills. Coach Mallory is encouraged about his future and has no plans to lose him to the linebacker crew despite Bussey's size and growth potential.

"Nate's going to be a great player for us. In time. He's got to keep going. He's still a freshman, and it's hard to play as a freshman. I'm just getting a little bit more and a little bit more. When he gets his chance, whether it be this year or next year, he'll do a great job for us. I think he has a good chance to be a real good safety for us. You can never have enough big guys who can run. I like the way he can cover ground back there."

Illini coaches are preparing more players for playing time this Saturday. Zook realizes the importance of developing depth and giving his starters an occasional rest.

"Yeah, we talked about that, particularly on offense. On offense (against Missouri), we played 22 or 23 guys. We need to play more guys on offense, and we will. I told our football team that just because you're running second team on the depth chart doesn't mean you don't have the right to be out there. But I think as a football program, and a football team, we have to play more people on both sides."

Coach Zook is tired of losing, and his tone this week was strong and insistent, to say the least. He demanded perfection in practice because he expects it in the games.

"I reiterated, very strongly, to our football team last night that the guys that have been around here for a while need to start playing like they've been around here for a while. We are not going to accept anything but their best. There are certain times when certain sides or certain people are not playing to their ability and that's something that upsets me more than anything else. I think it just comes to that mindset of accepting, and we will not accept anything other than wins.

"We're here to win football games, period, and we have not done that yet. I feel very strongly and confident that we are on the right track, and we are going to get there. We're going to speed the process up if that's possible to do. There's an NFL saying, 'Great players have to play great and good players have to play good.' I think that's where we're at.

"Everybody understands that it's not your birthright to play here. You have to earn your position and maintain it. I think that's what they want as players and the fans want as fans. That's what they're going to get."

The Illini staff and players are focusing solely on getting a win Saturday against Western Illinois University. Alumni and fans should be encouraged by Coach Zook's concluding remarks.

"We're going into the game Saturday to win," promised Zook. "Now, whatever that takes to win the game, we're going to do. We're going to attack this thing. In my opinion, it's the most important game of my life and their lives, and it is."

Associate Athletic Director Warren Hood, responsible for overseeing stadium construction, has worked overtime to make sure everything is completed on time. The concessions are in place. Everything is being cleaned and spit polished. History is in the making.

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