Illini Ready To Move On, Open at Home

While fans may still be rehashing Illinois' frustrating loss to an outstanding Missouri squad last week, the Illini are preparing for an Eastern Illinois University team that is fired up to play them. The focus must be on the Panthers and making the Illinois Renaissance celebration a memorable one.

Illini fans will get their first look at the beautiful new construction nearing completion within Memorial Stadium Saturday morning. And they will honor many of the 80 top Illlinois football players of all time. But more than anything, they want to see Illinois back on a winning track.

"This is a big, big week," Coach Ron Zook stated. "Number one, we've got a football team back playing where it's supposed to be. The second thing is we will have a lot of great former Illini, and Illini fans in general get to see (the new construction). It is a great, great facility. It is very important we play the way that stadium looks. We are capable of doing that."

The Illini have learned some valuable lessons from the Missouri game they hope will help them this week. Coach Zook likes how his players have responded to the loss.

"They looked like I would want them to. Discouraged but not panicked. They're like you'd want them to be. One thing good about it being the first game, you've got a long season ahead. The more work we do, the better we are. That was a good football team we played. There are some adjustments we need to make. You'd rather find that out now than after Penn State."

Will Davis spoke for the defense.

"We learned we've got to play hard. We've got to know our assignments, that's the most important thing. A lot of guys didn't know their assignments and ended up with a lot of missed tackles."

Weakside linebacker Martez Wilson drew some criticism for his play, in large part because his glowing press clippings make him seem larger than life. But he was starting his first game as an Illini against Missouri, and he still has much to learn.

"My stats may have looked good, but I know I've got a lot to improve on," Wilson said. "You know, like hitting the hole harder, playing more aggressive, running to the ball, bending my knees more and being more athletic. I graded myself a "C" after the game. After watching film, there were a lot of things I could have done better. Making plays will come if I do what I'm supposed to."

Center Ryan McDonald reflected on the imperfections in the Illini offense versus Missouri.

"We didn't run the ball very well last game, and we kind of looked confused. I don't know if that was first game jitters. I know I didn't play very well. I think when you look at it, Juice played a tremendous game, the receivers did a great job.

"When we hit some passes, it opened up the running game. When we started running the ball, our play action was working. Every thing sets up another thing. Offensive football is about how you establish things from the get-go. That was as bad a first half as we have played, so that's an area we need to improve."

Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley has respect for Eastern's defense, and he knows they will be excited to compete against the state school. But his first focus is getting his offense to perform at peak efficiency, and Illinois' improved passing attack will definitely help the cause.

"If they're gonna load the box against us and force us to pass, we have some other options besides the things we've done the last few years to control the box count."

Locksley is looking for balance between run and pass to keep defenses honest. Illinois was primarily a running team last year, and a good one, but the lack of balance had its drawbacks as well.

"What we did last year was what our players were capable of doing. We took our strength and rode it as far as we could ride it. But we also hit a few stumbling blocks where, if the running game isn't going well, whether we're not blocking the perimeter or they're outnumbering us in the box, to create balance in the offense we've got to create an efficient passing game."

Locksley has no plans to use his promising youngsters more in the EIU game than Missouri. That will depend on how the game progresses as he wants a win most of all. But he may have one additional weapon available if slot receiver/punt returner Jack Ramsey has gotten back into the flow after sitting out awhile waiting for NCAA clearance.

"Right now, he's practicing with us. He's been through enough two-a-days, I think he has a pretty good feel for the base of our offense. If things progress, maybe we can go into the game with a plan to involve him."

Both Locksley and Co-Defensive Coordinator Dan Disch see the Panthers as similar in a number of respects to Missouri in how they run their offense and defense. Their coverages are similar to the Tigers, and they run a spread offense as well.

"They're multiple, they're real balanced," Disch explained. "Coach Spoo's been around a long time and is as good a coach as we'll face anywhere. They're gonna come out and try to do what they feel gives them the best chance. They do a lot of good stuff, and we've got to play better. We have to worry about us getting better, and we'll be ok I think."

Several Illini players expressed their eagerness to face the Eastern Illinois challenge.

Running back Daniel Dufrene: "We'll learn from the game and move on. We have to come out with the same intensity, like we're playing the number one team. They (EIU) can come out and compete and maybe even beat us if we're not prepared.

"They're gonna run the same blitzes and same defenses to try to stop the run. I think that's what they're gonna try to do. We know they're gonna try to upstage us to prove they should have come here, but we're ready for the challenge."

Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui: "We didn't perform our best last Saturday, so there's a little revenge for us to get a win. We're excited. It's a new week, and we're ready to go. Coming off a loss like that, definitely you've got to get your mind right. You've got to forget about it and get right back into the playbook to game plan for Eastern."

Wide receiver Will Judson: "It (losing) just makes us want to work that much harder every week. Winning is hard at any level. We've just got to go out and put in the work, and we'll get good results. We're not looking at the polls, we're just looking to get better every day and handling our business. All of that will take care of itself in the future."

Wide receiver Chris Duvalt: "We expect, if not the same, even better (than last year). Expectations are very high around here. We expect to go to a big bowl game and pull out a victory. It was a disheartening loss, but it's a confidence booster really because Missouri is a very good team.

"We don't worry about rankings, we just worry about the team that's in front of us. Since we went to the Rose Bowl last year, we were all riding high around here. The Missouri game kind of brought us back down to earth. We're gonna come out and play this game with much-needed intensity."

Coach Zook summed up the mood of the entire team.

"I think you'll see a little different group out there on Saturday. We're not gonna do anything different because what we do is good. We believe in it, it's great. We're not gonna be out there any longer or hit any more, we're just gonna do it perfectly."

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