Illini Foe Ball State Better Than You Think

The Fighting Illini football team hosts Ball State for Homecoming Saturday at Memorial Stadium. It is an important game since both have 5-3 records and seek one more win for bowl eligibility. The Illini have had a good practice week, and they are eager to put on a show for returning alumni.

Illini coach Ron Zook probably showed more intensity in practice this week than any other time this year. He knows how important this game is, and he wants to prevent any loss of emotion and focus that might result after a hard-fought loss to Michigan last week.

"This game is crucial, imperative and important to us just as it is to Ball State," explains Zook. "We are both trying to become bowl eligible. It is important to our staff that we give our seniors an opportunity to go to a bowl game."

Ball State definitely has the Illini's attention. The Cardinals are a confident bunch and expect to play well. Their passing game with Nate Davis at the helm is among the nation's best, and they see a big opportunity this weekend given Illinois' past problems defending the pass.

The Illini have to get pressure on him, meaning it is critical that outstanding pass rushers Will Davis and Derek Walker have big games.

Co-Defensive Coordinator Curt Mallory sums up the situation well.

"As a whole, there isn't a team we've played we can compare them to. We have to do a better job in the pass game, and we've got a heck of a challenge this week."

A big key for the Illini will be sustaining drives on offense so they can keep the Cardinals' offense off the field and their own defense rested. They will likely need to outscore Ball State because the Cardinals will score, perhaps a lot. Experts theorize the Illini can run the ball on the Cardinals, but they will need to be consistent and avoid turnovers.

"The name of our game is execution," says star Illini running back Rashard Mendenhall. "We've got to be efficient and execute. We've got to take care of the opportunities we have. If we do that, we can beat anybody."

Quarterback Juice Williams was positive and smiling in practice this week. He seems to have let go of any painful memories from the recent past and is ready to give his entire focus over to the task at hand.

"We take the same approach as if it's Michigan. It's Homecoming, there's going to be a lot of electricity in the stands. We're not going to take these guys lightly. Ball State's a very good team, and we'll need all the positive emotion we can get for this game."

Offensive Coordinator and quarterback coach Mike Locksley has tried a number of techniques to help Juice and fellow qb Eddie McGee improve their passing efficiency. This week, he had the two standing in the middle of the end zone on the right side throwing balls to the other quarterbacks standing on the left back boundary. They were to split the uprights from that extreme angle.

This required them to put air under the ball with pinpoint accuracy. If they can visualize the narrow track created by the two goal uprights during games, they can remember this drill and hopefully improve their accuracy.

The entire team appeared excited about the game, probably because they realize the rewards available to them a win can provide.

"Our goals are the same," reminds cornerback Vontae Davis. "The good thing about it is we know how it feels to lose, but we also know how it feels to win five straight. So we know how much we have to do to get a W. We want to put on a show for the fans. We want them to know Illinois is back. The biggest thing we want to do is get bowl eligible."

Mallory is upbeat about Illini prospects.

"We've got a lot at stake. These kids are hungry, and they're going to be ready. I believe in these kids. We've been through a lot, and we know we have an opportunity to get better and keep moving forward, and that's what we've got to do."

Coach Zook respects the importance of Homecoming, but he wants bowl eligibility more than anything.

"Homecoming is for the fans. We've got to go out there and be prepared to do the things we can do. We can control our own destiny, and we have to go out and do it now."

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