Illini Get Ready For Power of Wisconsin

It is amazing what a few wins can do for a team's attitude. Each victory gives players more confidence, and special victories such as the Fighting Illini's rousing upset of Penn State last week uplift the spirits and provide great joy. That uplifting attitude was present in abundance this week during preparations for the Illini's big home game with the Wisconsin Badgers Saturday.

The Illini are playing from a position of strength, and they have even been favored by some prognosticators this week. But it is a big step forward to defeat the number five ranked team in the country. Wisconsin is a team with great talent that is accustomed to winning under all circumstances. They will not lay down and give the game to the Illini. A home team victory will require immense effort, constant crowd support, and likely some good fortune.

At least, the Illini have done their part preparing for the game with their intense, focused practices this week. The game plans have been studied, new wrinkles have been added, and Wisconsin tendencies have been practiced against. Now, they just have to go out on the field Saturday and play the game of their young lives.

This game, even more than most, may be decided in the trenches. Both teams are proud of their offensive and defensive lines, so it will be an interesting battle to see which side gains the upper hand.

Wisconsin's ball control offense has perpetually boasted massive offensive linemen who open holes for outstanding running backs, and this year is no exception. Illini defensive line coach Tom Sims described the problems facing his charges this week.

"They're a good football team without a doubt. They're a highly ranked football team. So they always present a challenge. We've improved, and we'll be tested again this weekend to see how much."

The Illini need to stop or at least slow the Badger rushing onslaught. Coach Sims offered some insight into how that might be accomplished.

"What you have to do is be sound in your fundamentals. They're sound in theirs, so if you are not sound in yours they will exploit you. They present a challenge, and we look forward to facing them. We have to be effective against the run. We say 'stop the run and have some fun.' And 'have some fun' means rush the quarterback. No matter who we play, our first focus is to contain the running game. This will be a unique challenge this week because they have an excellent running game. (P. J. Hill) is a very good back, one of the better backs in the country."

Wisconsin media have expressed concern about the Badger defense this year as it has given up more yardage and points than last year's dominating unit. Even though most of last year's starters are back, reports say there is less chemistry and leadership this year. Regardless, they have too many superstars not to play their best against Illinois.

"They play hard, they play tough, and they're well coached," explained Coach Ron Zook. "This is a defense that shut us out last year in the second half. They scored 20 unanswered points. In the Big Ten, they have almost 10 minutes more of possession. The offense does a great job of holding on to that football, so the defense is fresh when they go in there. They fly around. They get after you."

Illinois has shown an excellent running game this year, and a big part of their success can be attributed to an improved offensive line. Coach Zook gives much credit to new offensive line coach Eric Wolford.

"I think Wolfie has done a great job. The chemistry of the offensive line is really good this year. We haven't played quite as many people. I'm always on Wolfie on that. We need to play more guys. You've got Martin [O'Donnell], you've got Ryan [McDonald], guys that have been in the system. This is their third year starting. Xavier [Fulton] kind of came over and learned on the run.

"A lot of people don't know this, but Xavier is a pretty smart guy. He's picked that stuff up and done extremely well. I can't say enough about them. I'm proud of them. Of course, Akim [Millington] is going to the other side. So you get some continuity with guys who have a year or two under their belt."

The Illini offensive line is aggressive, and Coach Zook explains why that is important. "I think in the Big Ten you better be aggressive or you'll get eaten up. People talk about the Big Ten being a bit smash mouth, and I think that it is a smash mouth conference. But it's also a conference that's got a lot of skill and a lot of things that you need to be prepared for. Overall, I think you better be strapped up and ready to go."

Coach Wolford provides greater detail on the development of the line.

"The offensive line has taken ownership of what we do. Our philosophy is that it all starts up front. The kids have put in a tremendous amount of time in our offseason program, and they have taken the approach they are going to work hard every day to improve.

"I think they have come together in the offseason. That's one of the things we talked about is to have a much tighter knit group. Those guys (experienced players like McDonald, O'Donnell) are another set of eyes, coaches on the field. They know what is expected when you go into battle.

"There's always room for improvement. We have a chance to do some really good things. If we can continue to improve, then our chances will be pretty good."

Quarterback Juice Williams is grateful for the support his offensive line teammates are providing him this year. Last year, he was running for his life on almost every pass play. Now, he is learning to stay in the pocket more as his trust in his line grows.

"The big guys have been a blessing to me," says Williams. "They provide great protection when I run the option game, and we're very low on sacks. As a quarterback, you need to know that going into a game, that you are protected and the big guys care about you. They're concerned when they do things wrong. When we come off to the sidelines, they always ask about the pass blocking and whether I got sacked. That kind of team chemistry is fun, and it's a blessing. I definitely feel our offensive line play is a direct reflection of how Coach Wolfie is...big, nasty, mean, aggressive and smart up there."

Juice completes a high percentage of passes in practice when he is wearing a red jersey and knows he can't be hit. Is he starting to feel as confident during the games?

"It's getting closer, but it isn't quite there yet. When they start to blitz and send more men than we can handle, I feel myself get up off the ground and not know what's going on. I have more confidence now staying in the pocket and making the throws and allowing those guys to do their jobs."

Speaking of Juice, he seems to play his best on his first drive or two. He has a theory on why he plays well early and struggles later.

"When we first come out of the tunnel, the energy of the crowd and having your friends and family there make you full of excitement. You get so focused, you know what's going on. You make the right reads and make the accurate throws. When you start to worry about what the defense is doing, if you start getting nervous or let anxiety kick in, that's when things start to go wrong. You have to stay relaxed and make adjustments on the fly. That's probably my biggest problem right now is not staying relaxed and letting things get to me."

Both Juice and his backup Eddie McGee had excellent weeks of practice. If their high completion percentages in practice give them the confidence to play as well Saturday, they will have success.

Of course, the scout team is not always operating at full speed. Much of each week's practices is devoted to studying the offensive and defensive tendencies of the upcoming opponent, and half-speed allows all players to visualize what is happening. Defensive scout team members likely hope their offense succeeds in practice, giving them less incentive to disrupt plays or break up passes.

It is thus difficult to assess the development of the young players assigned to the scout squad. Many are freshmen who will probably be redshirted, and they are trying to mimic opponents rather than learn Illini plays and techniques. But it has become clear that defensive tackles D'Angelo McCray and Daryle Ballew, and offensive linemen Mark Jackson, Craig Wilson, Jack Cornell and Mike Garrity have significant potential.

Coach Wolford commented on the freshmen offensive linemen recently.

"Coach Zook and his staff have done a great job of recruiting. Everybody knows about that. Once those kids have gotten here, they have worked hard on the scout team, the offseason program, getting extra days of lifting in. They know their opportunities are going to come. They will have to accept that role at some point, and they will have to play. Some of those guys will be playing next year."

And what about C. J. Jackson, recently converted from tight end?

"He's got a tremendous amount of talent, he's just a little bit physically behind because he hasn't been lifting weights that offensive linemen would or eating like them. He has a tremendous amount of ability."

The Illini are facing their fourth straight opponent who they felt they should have beaten last year, so they desire to balance the scales. The motivation to continue their winning streak and beat the number five team in the country is important, but so is the desire to make up for last year.

"Missed opportunities in the second half," remembers J. Leman about last year's Wisconsin game. "We had a chance to win the game and just didn't finish. That's what I remember most. This year, we've done a better job of finishing ball games."

Coach Zook bragged repeatedly about the enthusiasm of the Illini crowd after the Penn State game. It was as loud as some long-time observers have ever experienced in Memorial Stadium. A supportive crowd plays a vital role in Illinois' success, and it will be needed again Saturday.

"The crowd was vital (against Penn State)," understates Leman. "We've been waiting a long time to get this place rocking and rolling. That's the loudest I've ever heard this place. It compares with some of the great stadiums in the Big Ten."

If comments from the players are an indication, the Illini coaching staff is doing an excellent job of keeping the team focused on Wisconsin and not letting their recent success make them lose sight of their long-term goals.

"I think we're pretty much in the moment," says Juice. "Coach always says to live in the moment, and that's what we try to do. Just have fun with the success we are having and try to retain the things we have done successfully. We are thinking about Wisconsin and not 4-1. We just had practice the last five games. It is the beginning of the season, and our record is 0-0. We're just going to prepare for Wisconsin.

"I think this team knows we can't get overconfident. Last year, we saw how things can go wrong. We know each game we have to start strong and finish strong."

And star running back Rashard Mendenhall echoes those thoughts.

"The recognition is definitely nice, but like Coack Locks said, what we've done in the past doesn't mean a thing. We need to worry about this next game and prepare every day. We've started to get some recognition, get some respect. But we still have to play Saturday. We have a great upside, but we still have to get better before Saturday."

Wisconsin is a powerful, confident team. They will be difficult to upset, but the Illini have prepared well and are optimistic. The challenge ahead is why most athletes accept athletic scholarships to play college ball. And it is why Coach Zook came to Illinois.

"They are the No. 5 team in the nation, so they are going do everything they can to stay there. This is a great challenge for us. This is a great opportunity for us to play a team like this. This is why you come to a place in the Big Ten to have this opportunity."

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