Zook: We Can Still Play Much Better

It was by far Illinois' best performance since Ron Zook has taken over the reins. But the head coach believes the Illini still can play much, much better than they did in Saturday's 41-20 dismantling of Syracuse. And as his troops get ready for a crucial Big Ten game this week against Indiana, Zook discussed the good and the bad of Saturday's non-conference win in an exclusive interview.

"The first quarter of that game is as well as we've played since I've been here," Zook said. "We did just about everything right. The key now is to have games in which we play like that and sustain it. That is the next step."

Zook said there weren't a host of glaring errors after the first period, just a few things here or there. Rashard Mendenhall fumbled. Antonio Steele missed a tackle in the open field that set up a touchdown. Others missed tackles, even J. Leman a few times. Joe Morgan was offside on the botched onsides kick attempt.

"Not a lot of things," Zook said. "Just some things here or there. Believe me, we're really proud of these guys. I see how hard they are working, how much better we are getting. We told them that. But on the same token, it is important that they know we can't settle. That is what is most important. To keep getting better, no matter what happened last game."

Now the Illini are faced with a stiff challenge. Oddsmakers have installed Illinois as a two to three point favorite over home-standing Indiana, but Zook knows how improved the Hoosiers are. They are undefeated; they have an electrifying quarterback in sophomore Kellen Lewis and they will be riding a wave of confidence for a number of reasons: they are at home, they are unbeaten and they rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat Illinois last year in Champaign.

"The key for us is to be able to play and sustain our level of play now that people are saying nice things about us," Zook said. "That is an area where we haven't always been so good. Handling success. We are proud that we've won a few games here, but we have to play with that chip on our shoulders. Like our backs are against the wall. That is when we are at our best."

Zook said there are no significant injuries. Running back Daniel Dufrene suffered a minor ankle injury and could have returned if needed.

"But Troy (Pollard) was running so well, I said, let's just let him go," Zook said. "Boy is he going to be a nice player for us. You saw what he can do."

One reason for the enormous success is that Illinois focused on getting the ball to its playmakers. Juice Williams, Rashard Mendenhall, Regis Benn and Troy Pollard had the ball in their hands much of the time the Illini were on offense.

"I think we know who are playmakers are," Zook said.

That is becoming more clearly defined. Benn, Kyle Hudson, Jacob Willis and Brian Gamble seem to be getting most of the reps at wide receiver. Joe Morgan is faster than all of them except Benn, but may not have the playmaking skills – at least not yet – of a guy like Gamble, who just seems to have a knack for the game. Morgan, a key special teams player, still will be a key offensive player, but may not get the ball as much as the other, sure-handed guys.

Most importantly, Juice Williams is looking and feeling more confident every game. He made a terrific play to find Jeff Cumberland for the game's first touchdown on a scramble play. After completing fewer than 40 percent of his passes a year ago, Juice is completing 61 percent after three games.

And he ran the option with more precision than at any time in his career.

"He likes running it, that is part of it," Zook said. "And he is getting it. You can see it in his eyes. He isn't there yet, but it is coming."

And so are the Illini.

"But we have to not think about that," Zook said. "We have to just go out and play like each week is our last one. To play every single play like that. Every single play."

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