Illini Ready For The Big Ten Opener

The Fighting Illini and Indiana Hoosiers square off in an important Big Ten football opener Saturday in Bloomington, Indiana. The Illini have worked hard this week in practice, and with good reason. Indiana is a good team with scary good skill players, and it stands in the way of Illini goals.

Coach Ron Zook's public persona remains the same as always, but there is no doubt he wants this game badly. Illinois hasn't won a Big Ten opener since 1993, and Ron Zook has yet to win three games in a season. Both problems would be resolved with a win. And the Illini need to beat teams like Indiana to have a chance at a bowl game.

Coach Zook discussed the importance of the game during his press conference this week.

"We told our team that this is the time of the year that everybody aims for. We talked about the progress that we've made and the things that we've done well and the things that we haven't done so well. We're getting ready to play a very good Indiana team, a team that by far, has the most skill of any team that we've seen.

"The bottom line is, this is the third time we've played Indiana, and we haven't won yet. It's a Big Ten game and a very important game for both programs. It will take another great effort on our part, but I think our guys are excited about the opportunity to get into the Big Ten season. We told our guys that they've got to prepare like they did last year, but also play like we did last week."

Quarterback Juice Williams was a little more specific about the team's mental focus for the game.

"Coach Zook told us he was going to be even more fired up because it's the Big Ten. You can tell it means something to this coaching staff to go out and be 1-0 in the Big Ten. That's something the players on the team want to give to the coaches.

"We definitely had the opportunity to win the game last year, and it kind of put our guys out a little bit. We let those guys get back into it and get a last second field goal. That's definitely in the back of our minds for Saturday, and it's definitely something we're going to try to avoid."

Defensive end Will Davis was even more pointed as to the team's motivation.

"Yeah, last year's game left a very bad taste in our mouths. When we came out on the field, we got into a little scuffle before the start of the game, and they beat us too. So that's all we've been thinking about right now. Coaches have been waiting for this game for a long time. Zook hasn't beaten them since he's been here. So it's a big game for us. We're really not going to look down on them."

Illini defenders have their work cut out for them this week. Indiana has great skill players who can embarrass them if their technique and focus are not sound. An important aspect of practice has been gang tackling, making sure everyone is energized to chase hard on every play to keep Indiana's gains to a minimum.

Another important talking point continues to be forcing turnovers. It has been several years since Illinois' turnover ratio has favored them. And it seems rare when they force a fumble. Illini coaches continue to emphasize stripping the ball and breaking up passes. One of these days, the hard work will pay off. They hope this Saturday is that day.

Senior defensive tackle Chris Norwell discussed what the Illini defenders need to do to neutralize dual threat quarterback Kellen Lewis, super fast running back Marcus Thigpen and rangy receiver James Hardy.

"He (Lewis) is a good quarterback. It's going to be tough. It's going to be a challenge for our defense. We love challenges, so we'll come out ready to play. Definitely, you need a different game plan for a guy like that. But we've practiced against Juice Williams all camp, so I think we're ready for it. Juice is the best, so we're ready to go. They're very similar players. The d-line has to just contain him. We can't let him run outside or he can really hurt us.

"Indiana has great speed actually. It's going to be a challenge for us, being in our gaps and where we're supposed to be. If we do that, we'll have a good game against them. We're going to go out there and compete and see what happens. Everyone wants to get three in a row, and if we can do that it would be great. We're looking forward to Saturday."

Kellen Lewis and Juice Williams have similar games. Juice commented on the similarities.

"We have similar styles. I like to throw the ball down the field and make some things happen with my legs. So it will be pretty exciting to see myself on the other side of the ball."

The 6'-7" Hardy is a handful to defend. Defensive back coach Mike Woodford is succinct in his appraisal of Hardy.

"I don't know if you do (stop him). He's going to get his, you've just got to stop everyone else. He might be the best there is around. He's one of the top ones in the country. You know, when a guy is that tall, he doesn't look as fast. But he's fast. He has all the tools, and he has our respect. He's as good as they say he is. I'd like to put about three guys on him. That's about the only way to completely stop him."

Indiana has also had great success defensively so far this season. They may place 8-9 defenders close to the line of scrimmage to stop running attacks. Illinois has shown a dominant running game so far, and Illini offensive coordinator Mike Locksley believes it can work against Indiana.

"The style of run game we operate from, the spread, doesn't allow for defensive counters. They can put more guys in the box, but the option eliminates one of those guys. So when we do the zone read option stuff, the number of guys in the box doesn't really matter because one of those guys will be optioned.

"As far as us being able to throw the ball, I definitely think there will be times where the run game isn't being executed at a high percentage. If they offer us the ability to throw the ball, then we have to be able to take some shots. Right now, where I think we are, we are able to run the ball. And when it's working, we'll make them stop it before we have to alter anything."

The Illini work hard perfecting their intermediate and long pass routes for teams like Indiana. These passes are harder to complete and require much practice. But if Indiana forces Illinois to throw long to open up the running game, they are ready for it.

Some fans have questioned why outside receivers Kyle Hudson, Jacob Willis and Joe Morgan haven't seen more passes come their way. This is no reflection on them as receivers but is predicated on what the opponents permit. Up to now, slot receivers Arrelious Benn, Brian Gamble and Will Judson have been primary passing targets, and Locksley explained why.

"You take what the defense gives you. Fortunately for us, because of the way people are going to stop the run, which is the guys get cover inside our slot receivers, you tend to have the middle of the field open more than the outside. We were able to get a couple down-the-field throws off of our play action against Missouri, a couple of times when the defense allowed it. But we're going to take what they give us."

Locksley was asked specifically about Morgan since he has good size, outstanding speed and good leaping ability. Joe has been inconsistent catching the ball in practice, which has limited Locksley's confidence in him. But the coach still praises what Morgan brings to the table.

"Joe's done his job for us as a blocker in the run game. Again, our goal is to do what the defense gives us. Our receivers understand that you may not get to catch a bunch of balls, depending on how the game comes out."

The Illini are healthy for the game, and their young players are gaining valuable experience and enjoying a confidence boost. Coach Zook likes to play a large number of players so more of them will be ready for top performances when needed.

"You can't buy experience. On offense and defense we took seventy guys and sixty-three played (at Syracuse). I think that's good. There's no way to buy experience. You have to give them a chance to go out and play."

Among those youngsters who gained immeasurably by their early season experiences is freshman running back Troy Pollard. Zook singled him out for praise.

"He's just happy, and he understands that it's not going to be like that every week. He said he's a little sore. But I was happy for him, because when he first came in here, I was concerned that he wasn't in the shape he needed to be in. But he's worked really hard and he's eating right."

Another player who has benefitted from some recent success is tight end Jeff Cumberland. He has caught only one pass so far, but it was a big one. His touchdown grab on Illinois' opening possession of the Syracuse game set the stage for a blowout win. Cumberland had a bounce to his step this week in practice, and he looked 1-2 inches taller from the confidence boost. He may not have had a single dropped pass this week.

"Any time you have success, it adds to your confidence," confirmed Locksley. "That's the thing we've been lacking out of Jeff. Last week, he was starting to do some things in practice that led me to believe he was working himself out of the funk he was in. He's catching the ball at a higher percentage, he's blocking and taking care of his assignments better.

"So that makes it easier to have confidence to put in more plays for him. Anytime you get a touchdown or touch the ball, it makes you happy. And we would hope a playmaker wants to touch the ball. We design a game plan on who we think has the best chance to make plays. Our goal is to get the ball into the hands of the guy who's going to make a play for us."

Indiana also poses special teams concerns due to Thigpen's blazing speed. He broke one kick for a touchdown last year against Illinois and almost repeated the performance. Mike Woodford, who also coaches special teams, discussed the difficulty of containing Thigpen on kickoffs.

"Obviously, you've got to work on your coverage. You have to decide number one whether to even kick it to him. But we have confidence in our coverage. He's a great one. You've got to be sure you contain him."

Some people try to kick away from Thigpen, but that isn't always the best solution. According to Woodford, it is advisable to vary your kick direction and coverages so the opponent can't predict your behavior. The Illini will no doubt try to corral Thigpen before he breaks a long one this Saturday.

A possible change may be in store for Illinois' kick return team. Both Arrelious Benn and Vontae Davis were seen practicing kick returns this week. Woodford was asked whether they would perform this role against Indiana.

"I hope so. They're bigger, they're stronger, they're faster, and they're good playmakers. I think they're ready, yes. That's Coach Zook's call. Whether they're in there or not, the other team knows we have them. So who knows."

Anthony Santella is entrenched as the Illini's primary punter, but he has yet to kick for the yardage and hang time he usually demonstrates in practice. Coach Woodford believes Anthony's problems are temporary.

"He's learning. He'll get his confidence as soon as he hits a couple. He'll get on a roll and he'll be fine."

Part of the reason for Santella's low punt average stems from his need to pooch some punts to land inside the opponent's 20 yard line. Coach Woodford said he has done a good job with that.

One additional problem for the Illini is playing on the Hoosiers' home turf. Despite the low projected attendance for Saturday, it will still be necessary for the Illini to maintain their focus no matter what the circumstances. Juice Williams described this process well.

"Yeah, it's a little different. At home, the fans scream your name and give cheers. And the little kids are saying, 'Hey Juice, how's it going? I hope you have a real good game.' But when you go to Indiana, Penn State or some place like that, you hear 'Illinois is going down,' and things like that. Otherwise, it's about the same. You just have to eliminate the good and the bad and just execute the offense."

The rewards for a victory are immense. Besides getting off to a positive start for the Big Ten season, a victory would position the Illini halfway toward a six win season, something they haven't had since 2001. And it would be one more win than Coach Zook has had in each of his two previous seasons at the Illinois helm. But as Juice explains, there are some intangible rewards as well.

"After victories, you find yourself having more fun. And that's pretty much what the game's all about. Getting W's, having something to tell your kids and grandchildren is what it is about. And the legacy behind it. That's something you really want to do. The team loves the success we've had, and they like the feeling we had Saturday. That's something we want to continue to have."

Coach Zook summarized the importance of the game.

"It's something that we've set our sights on since last December, and it's imperative that we continue to show improvement and get to where we want to be," says Zook. "There are eight Big Ten games, and you don't want to say that one is more important than the other. They're all critically important, and as you get into the Big Ten schedule and teams start to get worn down or get injuries here and there, you never know what is going to happen. So, it is important that you play every one of them as hard as you possibly can and give yourself the best opportunity to win."

< In that regard, Coach Zook believes the Illini are ready for a good effort.

"It was a pretty good week. The concentration was good. I think we've had as good a practice this week as we've had. They understand the importance of the game, they understand we have to play our best. We're playing a good football team, and we're going to have to play our best to win it.

"We're continuing to make progress. Anytime you're doing the same thing over and over you're going to get better, and the better you feel about it you get more confidence. I'm not worried about being too high. They have to prepare themselves to play the best they can play. If we do that, it should be a heck of a ball game."

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