Illini Square Off With Red Hot Michigan

Illini alumni and fans have a chance to exorcize some demons as the Michigan Wolverines invade Memorial Stadium Saturday night in a nationally televised contest. This game has many similarities to the night game seven years ago in which two officiating calls paved the way for a Michigan victory. Can the Illini upset the favored Wolverines and erase those bitter memories?

Illinois often plays Michigan tough, but they still usually find themselves on the losing side, especially in Champaign-Urbana. They have not beaten U-M at home since the Rose Bowl year of 1983. Their last home victory before that was way back in 1958. The Illini have won some games at the Big House, but winning at home as been a monumental feat.

The nationally televised game in 2000 pitted national title contender Michigan versus upstart Illinois, who defeated them in Ann Arbor the previous year and saw their star rising. Before the advent of video review of controversial officiating decisions, Illinois had no choice but to accept two fumble calls that went against the home team but were later proven erroneous. The Big Ten issued a public apology, but the game result remained the same. Illini fans have been bitter ever since.

There are few teams the Illini would rather beat. This has been true since the inception of the series in 1898. The "Conquering Heroes" have always seemed to arrogate themselves at Illinois' expense. And their decision to withdraw from the Western Athletic Conference, the precursor to the Big Ten, in the early 1900's further antagonized the home forces.

Michigan balked at conference rules eliminating the use of paid professional athletes and transferred to an Ohio conference that was more lenient in this regard. When they finally saw the benefits of Big Ten membership, some conference members accepted their reinstatement only reluctantly. The relationship has been strained at times ever since.

Michigan holds a large series lead over Illinois. Some of these wins have come when Illinois was heavily favored. For instance, Pete Elliott won only one game against his brother Bump in the 1960's. Illinois had better teams through most of those years, but Pete could only visualize success against his brother in their last game. Illinois defeated Michigan in the 1983 Rose Bowl season, but they could only tie them at home two years later when most of the stars of the 1983 team were seniors. Even in the Big Ten Championship year of 2001, Illinois' only defeat prior to the Sugar Bowl was at the hands of the Wolverines.

Illinois again has aspirations of a Big Ten Championship and quality bowl bid, and Michigan stands in the way. Two season opening losses gave conference members hope that U-M was in a downward spiral, but they have since righted themselves and are playing extremely well again. Illini Coach Ron Zook has high praise for the Wolverines.

"I think you've got to remember that this football team was picked preseason to be a national contender, and that's how they are playing right now. They're hitting on all cylinders.

"We are going to have our hands full, but on the same token, our guys are excited about this opportunity. If you are in athletics and you are competitive, you always want to compete against the best. I told this staff that we are competing against one of the best staffs in the country."

Practice has gone well for the Illini this week. Coach Zook feels the team has practiced with great focus and intensity and is ready to play a good game. He even stated the Monday practice, abbreviated to give the athletes a lighter load both physically and mentally during midterm exam week, showed the best concentration for a Monday workout all season.

The only question about Michigan at this point is the health of their All-Everything running back Mike Hart, who suffered an ankle sprain last week against Purdue. A legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, Hart is the star among stars for U-M and needs to carry the ball 25-30 times a game for the Wolverines to be most effective.

Zook has great respect for Hart.

"The running back, I'm sure, is going to play. He's the best in the country. He's a warrior. I heard Coach Carr saying some things about him. I've got an awful lot of respect for Coach Carr and what he's done, and not only in the Big Ten Conference, but in this profession. He just doesn't hand out compliments like I heard him talk about with Mike Hart. That tells you about the kind of person that he is, not only a good football player, but a great team player. If you watch him, he's a competitor. He's tough. He does all the things that you need to see."

Senior safety Kevin Mitchell also has praise for Mike Hart and the Michigan offense.

"Michigan is a well-coached, tough team. They have a lot of weapons, especially Mike Hart, (quarterback Chad) Henne and all the rest. They had a great game last game, and they're starting to come together. They're going to be ready to play, and we have to match their intensity.

"Hart is a tough runner, and of course with a tough runner, you need a nice offensive line. I think he's the heart and soul of the team. It's going to be a nice opportunity to stop a good back. We have to bring it to the table every play if we want to win."

Junior linebacker Brit Miller wants Mike Hart healthy and ready to play his best.

"We don't want to go out and beat a Michigan minus Mike Hart. We want their best team and best effort, just like they want ours. I hope Mike Hart is healthy and ready to go because it's something we've been looking forward to for a long time. I think this defense is going to be ready to roll."

Of course, Hart is not their only skilled offensive player. Senior quarterback Chad Henne is a four year starter whose early season injury slowed the U-M offense. Healthy again, Henne can hurt any team with accurate passing to great athletic wideouts like Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington and tight end Carson Butler. And they all have talented backups.

Co-Defensive Coordinators Dan Disch and Curt Mallory have their hands full deciding how best to defend all those weapons. If you try to stop one thing, something else can hurt you. Disch expands on Michigan's talent and the difficulty defending a team that is completely balanced between run and pass.

"It seems like each week we face more and more weapons. They've got weapons at every position. Obviously, they have if not the best then one of the best running backs in the country. Their offensive line is as big and physical as we've seen, their receivers are athletic and can make plays, their quarterback is great.

"You go in there and do the best you can do because you can't stop them all. They're the first team in the nation to pass for 1000 yards and rush for 1000 yards, so they're a good football team."

Michigan lost a number of top defensive players to graduation and the NFL draft after last season, but Zook reminds their replacements are more than adequate.

"The defensive line, a lot of people maybe thought that since they lost some of those great players to the NFL, that they might fall off a little bit, but they haven't fallen off, in my opinion. They are still flying around, making things happen. That No. 2 (UM LB Shawn Crable)...I hope our No. 2 (LB Martez Wilson) is going to grow and learn like their No. 2, as he progresses through his career. He jumps around and makes plays, dives over people."

Michigan's struggles early against Appalachian State and Oregon give hope to the Illini because fast quarterbacks who can both run and throw have given them problems. Much speculation during the week has been focused on whether Juice Williams or Eddie McGee would see the most playing time against the Wolverines. Zook leaves no doubt about the starter while leaving open the possibility of both players receiving playing time.

"Juice is our starting quarterback. I also think there is a good chance that you're going to see Eddie come in the game. We don't have a predetermined time when that's going to happen. If Eddie prepares the way that we need Eddie to prepare, then I think there's a chance that we can use him. But it's not something that is set up, and we don't pick a particular time during the course of the game that he's going to come in."

The key for McGee is preparation. Fans only see what players do on the field. They do not see practices or all the meetings and film sessions that go into each week's game preparations. Eddie is a redshirt freshman who is still learning all that is required of a starting quarterback, and Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley is waiting for signs he is ready for the extra responsibility.

"It's easy to go out when you don't have the pressure of being the starter," says Locksley. "You talk to any backup quarterback, you tell him to prepare as if he's the starter, they mentally do it. But to physically go out and have to do the things with the pressure of having to execute. Anytime you come off the bench, it's a lot easier. You've had a chance to see things and get a feel for what they're doing, and that sometimes gives Eddie an advantage coming into the game."

According to Locksley, Juice Williams is handling the idea of sharing time with Eddie McGee "like a pro."

"He's Eddie's biggest fan," brags Locksley. "When we had the big play that got called back (against Iowa), watching a TV copy of the game, he was the first one running down the sideline to congratulate him. And after Eddie threw the interception at the end of the game, he was the first one off the bench to console him. Those two have a great relationship. There is no bitterness."

Juice's comments show a maturity beyond his years.

"I just want to come out here, play hard, and continue to stay focused. We're still in the right direction, so the loss is not the end of the world. Losses come and go, you just have to bounce back from them. Whenever there's a problem, he (McGee) is the first person to come to you on the sideline, saying they're doing this to you. So that is the kind of relationship we have. We have no animosity toward one another. If I knew I didn't know what's going on and he had a better grasp, I would ask coach Locksley to put him in."

And Eddie echoes those comments.

"It's all about what the coach decides. I just want to win. Yeah, we always help each other. We always communicate about coverages and what the defense is doing to us."

Illinois has shown a potent offense all year, so both quarterbacks are getting the job done. Their biggest drawback is they're both still quite young.

"We can't wait until they're all juniors and seniors," reminds Coach Zook. "They'll be better as juniors and seniors than they are as freshmen and sophomores. These guys are improving and continuing to get better and feel more comfortable. It's a reaction game, and the more times you do things, the better you are going to be at it."

It appeared Iowa learned how to shut down Illinois' option attack, forcing the Illini to pass more than they would prefer at this stage of their development. But Coach Locksley realizes the Illini didn't play their best at Iowa, and their passing game is improving.

"Up until this last weekend, we were a 400 yard a game offense and scoring 30 points a game. For those who say we were outschemed or not making adjustments, we didn't execute our perimeter blocking very well. The same plays we were able to make against Indiana, Wisconsin and Penn State, we got beat out on the perimeter with our blocks, which didn't allow us to execute. We weren't as disciplined in our techniques as we need to be.

"Every play we do in the passing game each day in practice is evaluated. We've got the quality control to say we complete this pass at this percentage. I've seen us make throws in games that we haven't made in practice. I'm starting to see some of it transfer to the games. Juice hit some balls over the middle in the Indiana game that he wasn't always comfortable throwing. He came back and hit a couple slants against Penn State versus man coverage. I see it slowly but surely getting close, and it can become a part of the balance we need to offset the things we do in the run game."

And Juice reminds that one of his and Eddie's biggest assets is the play of running back Rashard Mendenhall.

"Rashard has meant everything to this offense. He is so confident, he makes you feel at home. He's developed into more like a step-brother. If I'm struggling, he's right there saying 'just give me the ball, Juice.' So that takes a lot of pressure off my shoulders. Rashard is not big on seeing Rashard Mendenhall vs. Mike Hart. Rashard just focuses on this team's success."

No one is certain how well the Illini can bounce back after the tough loss to Iowa, but Brit Miller speaks for the whole team in looking forward to a boistrous full house at Memorial Stadium Saturday night.

"As a defensive person and competitor, I think the Iowa loss will help us light the fire that we need. I don't think there's any need for more fire because this place is going to be electric. The sold out fans, you've got Michigan coming to town, it's always a big rivalry game.

"I think they're expecting a game. I think losing last week made us refocus and not be overly happy about winning. Hopefully, it will mature us a little bit and become a better team down the road. We need this one bad. Michigan is coming to town at a pivotal point in our season. The Iowa game didn't make us lose confidence, it just made us buckle up and work harder. We needed to buckle up, we needed to get shaken up and realize that wins don't come easy."

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