Illini Face Final Challenge of Season

The Fighting Illini football team hopes to finish off its best season since 2001 when the Illini host the Northwestern Wildcats Saturday on Senior Day at Memorial Stadium. After six years of frustration, the Illini are finally back in the national limelight, and they want to stay there. Now there is just one more step left to finish the job.

Trouble is, they are playing a highly motivated team that needs a win to guarantee a bowl bid. And outside distractions have put extra pressure on the home forces.

Last week's glorious upset of #1 ranked Ohio State is both a great boost to Illinois' reputation and an extra distraction that could impede preparations for Northwestern. Media representatives from all over the country wanted a piece of Coach Ron Zook's and quarterback Juice Williams' time. They obliged most of these requests, although Florida media tried in vain to have Zook comment on the possibility of playing Florida in a bowl game.

On Monday after practice, Juice was clearly exhausted as he waited patiently for all the different media to get their shot at him. Dinner, classwork, and game film study all had to wait until every last reporter finished his work.

Fortunately, Williams was off limits to the media the rest of the week, so hopefully he can recharge his batteries and have a solid effort against the Wildcats. Juice must face this extra responsibility the rest of his career, but it will no doubt take time for him to acclimate and not let it interfere with his primary tasks.

The other main problem after a big win is preparing for a major effort the following week. The Illini came out extremely flat at Iowa after consecutive upsets of Penn State and Wisconsin, and they know a repeat is possible. For those who remember Ray Eliot's great upset victories as Illinois' head coach in the 1940's and 1950's, few remember the high frequency of losses the week afterward. It appears to be a common human thread to see peak performances followed by a downturn, and Illinois must somehow overcome this tendency to win Saturday.

In the preseason, the Illini planned a "Revenge Tour" of the seven teams on their schedule who defeated them last year, and they have won five of the first six contests. Illinois' large group of seniors has never beaten the Wildcats, and they would love to return the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk to the Illini tropyy case. So there is certainly motivation to give maximum effort.

Illinois' senior group is filled with outstanding leaders, and it is their sincerest wish to finish their careers with a home victory.

"It's seems funny I'll never get to play here again," reflects star middle linebacker J. Leman. "This is a dream come true. I wouldn't have had it any other way. And all we've accomplished this year makes it doubly satisfying. We're not done yet. We have two games left, and we're still hungry."

Senior free safety Kevin Mitchell feels the same way. "We have to know what's at stake. Us being able to play in a bigtime bowl, being senior day and our last home game ever, we've just got to be ready to play because we know they are. We have to match their intensity and go beyond that. When you lose to a team year after year, especially when the two teams are evenly matched up, it puts a little fuel to the fire.

"I remember the tough days. We went through a lot of adversity, but it feels great to know we are leaving this program on a high end. I'll always be an Illini and come back and visit. I wish them a lot of success."

"I can't wait for it to come, but I don't want it to come too fast," confides senior strong safety Justin Harrison. "It's important to have success with the guys you've gone through so much with, all the heartbreak. Being able to have success with these guys means so much to us."

Offensive guard Martin O'Donnell has become a true leader on the line his senior season, helping limit opponents to 11 sacks in 11 games.

"I've been expecting this kind of turnaround for five years now," admits O'Donnell. "I knew it was going to happen, but I am glad it's happening while I'm still here. The way we've been preparing, not just this year but the past years. Our offseasons are rigorous. Coach Lou puts us through some tough stuff. We found a way this year to not just play with people but to beat them."

Speaking for the entire senior class, who went through some extremely difficult times but found a way to transform failure into great success, O'Donnell reminds of the benefits of such a difficult career.

"I know I've become a better person and a stronger person being here with this program. Through the ups and downs, we've got a lot of life lessons. Teams that win every year don't learn those kinds of lessons. It's hard to come in after you've been beaten by a lot several weeks in a row. But it's the kind of thing where those life lessons will serve us well."

Coach Zook hopes Memorial Stadium will be packed to help send these Illini seniors out on a winning note.

"Obviously, this is our last home game here. It's something that to me, if you know me, you know that I'm a loyal person. And it's important to me that we send these seniors out on the right note. Any success that we've had, it has to do with our seniors. I've never done this, but I am actually going to go out there for senior day. I think that it's important that I show my appreciation."

Zook knows he has a difficult game ahead with Northwestern.

"This is a good football team we're getting ready to play. Obviously, they have an awful lot at stake as well. There's no one in this room that has beaten Northwestern since we've been here. Our staff hasn't beaten them, and none of the guys on the football team have beaten them. It's a critical game really for both sides. It's a rivalry game."

Illini coaches and administrators hope to see Memorial Stadium packed with aroused, noisy fans eager to encourage an important victory. Considering all the Illini players and coaches have overcome and achieved, they deserve nothing less.

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