Illini Complete Iowa Week Practice

The nationally ranked Fighting Illini football team continues its Magical Make-up Tour when it travels to Iowa City to take on the Hawkeyes Saturday. The Illini have reversed 2007 losses to each of their last four opponents, and the Illini hopes Iowa is next in line for some rebalancing.

Iowa has talent and is always tough at home, so there are no guarantees. But the Illini appear to be keeping their focus on the task at hand. Hopefully, they are obeying their mantra to celebrate success only after the season is complete. If they can stay fired up after two emotionally intense battles against powerhouse Penn State and Wisconsin teams, they can garner their sixth win on the season.

Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley believes the Illini will maintain their focus.

"For us coaches, everything is business as usual. When you come off a win, you are able to coach those guys very hard. The success we've had helps those guys see their dreams are starting to come into fruition. I don't anticipate our guys being overconfident.

"It's been a long time since Illinois' had success, and we still have a memory of not too long ago. I think maybe in the locker after the Missouri game there were some doubts. But now I think for these guys, it's like a drug. Those guys really like that feeling, and they need to do the things they've done to get to a situation over and over."

Coach Zook is inundated these days with media requests and other demands on his time. Considering how he works from 6:00am to 11:00pm anyway, it is uncertain how he can find the extra time. But success is not changing him, and he refuses to let it change his coaches and players.

"I'm not going to (change); the football part is going to stay the same," promises Zook. "As a coaching staff, we've said that we have to stay the same, and nothing can change. If we want the players to be that way, then we have to be the same way. I think it takes some of their time. I was teasing Coach Disch. He said something about taking a lunch, and I said that we don't have time for a lunch. We have to do those things, and eat on the run. You kind of have to do those things, but it's all part of it."

The Wisconsin game took its toll on both teams physically. The Illini had several walking wounded moving around gingerly at practice Monday, including stars Arrelious Benn and Juice Williams. And many of the others who saw action against the Badgers had the normal bumps and bruises that take time to heal. But the pace of practice picked up on Tuesday, and all the wounded were back at it.

Coach Ron Zook and his able staff are aware of the trap the Iowa game can be and have tried to minimize any letdown with creative coaching strategies. For instance, on Wednesday they moved part of their practice sessions to different areas of the practice field and ran them in different directions to keep everyone fresh and attentive. And they worked diligently to increase the intensity of practices.

Senior safety Kevin Mitchell can attest to the energy expended by the coaches.

"The coaches are on us every day. They're not going to let us get a big head. They know we're not where we need to be. Right now, we're just going to keep on doing what we're doing, and hopefully success will continue."

The offensive linemen were presented with a new toy to practice pass protection. A large orange and blue swinging punching bag was available for the first time. Someone would pull back on the bag and then push it toward a lineman on the other side. His task was to move his hands in front of him to punch the bag and neutralize its forward momentum. Xavier Fulton, Jon Asamoah and Akim Millington were among those who showed good hand quickness, timing and a strong punch. If the bag had been an onrushing defensive lineman, his forward progress would have been impeded greatly by their consistent efforts.

The development of the offensive line may be one of the most important reasons why the Illini have showed such a powerful offense. The fivesome of Fulton, Asamoah, Millington, Martin O'Donnell and Ryan McDonald are showing aggressiveness, mobility, strength and tremendous unity. It is a pleasure to watch them in action, opening holes and getting downfield for secondary blocks.

Star running back Rashard Mendenhall has high praise for his offensive line while also singling out fullback and lead blocker Russ Weil.

"Every week, we're trying to do the little things better," says Rashard. "I thank God. It's a blessing how we feel, how everything's coming together with the offensive line and Russ Weil, we've been here and worked on it for awhile, and it's starting to pay off."

Coach Locksley praises offensive line coach Eric Wolford and his charges, but he also confirms that the quality of all the assistants and their closeness as a group makes his job much easier.

"Football is a team sport, and the same can be said for coaching. Our defense has done a great job, and so has our special teams and offense. The addition of Eric Wolford and Kurt Beathard, along with coaches like Jim Pry and Reggie Mitchell, we've got a cohesive staff on offense. It's been a group effort."

Locksley has been criticized in the past as a play caller, in part due to his inexperience, which he readily admits.

"It's the truth. I wasn't very experienced. The good thing about working for a guy like Coach Zook is he had enough faith and belief in my coaching ability to give me the time and also the resources to give me the chance to be successful."

His critics have been noticeably muted this year, but Locksley still prefers to remain humble.

"Obviously, I'm a much better coach with good players. When you have guys who can make plays, it makes it easier. It really isn't rocket science. Get good players, put the ball in their hands and let them do what they're capable of doing."

The Wisconsin game saw tight end Jeff Cumberland getting a couple snaps at wide receiver and former tight end Mike Nabolotny moving back from the offensive line to provide more blocking. Coach Locksley plans to see more of them at their new positions.

"We'll continue to find ways to put guys in the right positions. We think right now Jeff is someone who can help us outside. He gives us some depth out there and is another big body that has the ability to run. So we'll see what happens from there."

Wide receiver Joe Morgan saw little action at the position the last couple weeks, but he seems fully recovered from his previous illness. Locksley hopes he can work back into the rotation.

"Joe was coming off being sick a couple weeks ago, and Jacob Willis had some pretty good games. We hope he will work himself back into it during this week of practice."

Iowa has struggled offensively, but they have talent. Defensive tackle Dave Lindquist looks forward to battle.

"They play the type of football that we like to play against. They try to knock you off the ball. That's the type of game we like to play, to go out there and hit people. That's what we've got to do this week. In the past, they've gotten the best of us, but this year our defense is really flying around, we're on a roll, and we can really take it to them."

As a student of the game, Lindquist is also impressed with Iowa's defense.

"They've got a real good defense. They're fast, they're physical, they play real hard, and they are creating turnovers. We've just got to hit them in the mouth and try to get that ball back. The turnover battle is going to say a lot about which defense outplays the other one."

A number of Illini and Iowa players were recruited by both schools, which adds even more to the rivalry. Freshman defensive tackle Josh Brent was recruited hard by Iowa but has already learned to separate his feelings for teams and coaches off the field from his play in games.

"Once you're on that field, you have no friends besides your teammates. Off the field, they (Iowa) are great, great coaches, but on the field we're opponents."

Brent also realizes the quality of the opponent.

"Iowa is one of those games we look forward to. You've got to stay hungry. This is a hostile environment. They're a pretty good football team even though their record doesn't say it."

The Illini have already achieved more than many fans could have hoped, but the players and coaches saw it coming and plan to continue their winning ways. Mitchell is an eloquent spokesman for the team.

"We know we're on our way, but we just have to continue to practice hard and stay focused. We knew we would have more speed guys which would help us out a lot, the offense would be better. If you look at last year, those games we came so close, put together and that's a bowl game right there.

"Now being a more veteran team, I think we're getting more turnovers, we're getting more pressure, the offense is more consistent and the special teams has gotten a whole lot better. Once you put those three phases together, it doesn't surprise me we're doing better."

Mendenhall remembers losing to Iowa last year, and he and his teammates definitely wish to make up for that result.

"I feel the Iowa game last year was like a lot of other games, just a lot of missed opportunities and not really getting things together. So now I feel this year we have a lot more confidence and we're executing at a high level."

Coach Zook sums up what faces the Illini Saturday in Iowa City.

"Our guys need to understand, and I think they do, there's only one thing that matters, and that's the University of Iowa. We've been here, going into our third year, our third time playing them. We haven't been able to beat them yet. Obviously, we're going there, to a hostile environment, a team that you might say is backed up against the wall a little bit. Anytime you get someone that's backed into the corner, you know they are going to come out fighting.

"You're going to get everything they have. It is no doubt in our minds, the staff, it's going to take every bit the same effort that we had last week, and maybe even a little more because they are a good football team. I'm proud of our football team, the way they played last week. It was a very physical football game. As we told them again yesterday, it will take exactly the same kind of game over in Iowa City."

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