Off Week Helps Illini Prepare for Penn State

The Fighting Illini have no football game this weekend. The rare bye week has been a great opportunity for them, first to work hard on making needed improvements and then to relax a few days and let their bruises heal. It appears they have taken advantage of the situation.

Illinois practiced Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. An unusual team meeting Sunday allowed players and coaches a chance to discuss the problems they have had getting fired up for their nonconference games the last two weeks. And it allowed them to refocus on the upcoming Big Ten season.

"We've had three pretty good days," Zook stated. "We got after it a little bit. We were in pads all three days, and there was no complaining. They worked hard, so that's all we could ask."

Zook and his staff emphasized team improvement, leaving Penn State preparations for next week.

"If the momentum doesn't get started for playing Penn State, then we probably have some issues. We are focusing right now on fundamentals, getting better. We know some of the things we've got to work on from the last three games, and we are putting heavy emphasis on those this week. I'm not so concerned about practicing for Penn State. What I'm concerned about is to get better."

Senior center Ryan McDonald, tired and sweating from a hard practice, confirmed the intensity present.

"Practice was pretty spirited. Guys were moving around quick. Coach likes to see guys moving around fast. He said he believes we had a good practice, and I believe that too."

Junior tight end Michael Hoomanawanui discussed the purpose of the bye week practices.

"We're a top 25 team, but obviously we haven't been playing like one. If we play like that coming into the Big Ten, it's not gonna work out. So we have a couple days here, and then we need to go out next week and prepare for Penn State.

"Playing against the speed of our defense will be good for us to get focused and ready for Penn State. We're definitely going back to the drawing board, getting the basic stuff cleaned up. The Big Ten season is gonna be rough."

Senior defensive tackle Dave Lindquist confirmed the team was hitting hard this week. His understanding of the needs of a successful team help him serve a leadership role for his younger teammates.

"You've gotta be hungry the entire time. Last year we had a lot of success, so maybe there's some satisfaction sinking in. But what we've been working on this entire season is staying hungry and getting after it. And not let ourselves be satisfied because we need to focus on this year and right now."

Lindquist doesn't agree with critics who claim the Illini took their last two foes for granted.

"I wouldn't say guys were taking it easy. Sometimes you get into one of those ebbs and flows in a game. Yeah, I've experienced that at times in my career. It occurs, it's just how are you going to respond to it.

"Against Eastern (Illinois), the defense wasn't playing up to par but the offense stepped up. And then this past game, the offense wasn't up to par and the defense stepped up until the very end. As long as we can balance each other and really work toward having a perfect game on both sides of the ball, then we can really have something special going."

McDonald is not sure why the Illini seemed to lack focus, but he is confident it won't continue.

"It really is quite baffling. I thought we had a pretty good week of practice. But for whatever reason...I don't know if we were looking forward to the bye week or where our heads were at. It's something where we know we got away with one.

"In the Big Ten season, you can't get away with one like that. If you can't get up for a Big Ten football game, then you really shouldn't be here. I believe it will be a one time problem."

Hoomanawanui is getting more passes thrown his way. His hard work is paying off, although he is also more bruised and battered. His great sliding catches last Saturday came with some unwelcome contact with the field turf.

"My elbows and knees are all scraped up. Juice apologizes for that and says he'll get the ball up. Accuracy is a big thing with him, and we were playing the wind last Saturday. I'm playing a lot more this year, so I'm a little beat up already.

"I'm definitely a fan of the bye week. We had a tough camp, and we've had a tough couple of first games, so the bye is nice. But if I had my way, smack dab in the middle of the season would be the best."

McDonald hasn't experienced a bye week before, but he is warming to the idea.

"A bye week is foreign, but it's welcome. The extra week in Rantoul was not easy. The way we were down last week, I think we need to refocus. Now that we're getting used to having school all the time and getting adjusted to what we've got to do on a day in and day out basis, we can collect ourselves and find out who we are. This is a time to rest and become reenergized."

Coach Zook believes the bye week will benefit the Illini greatly.

"People are beginning to realize that these guys are under academic pressure, athletic pressure. You're seeing more freshmen play, and it's getting harder and harder on them. They need a little break.

"Yes, they need to be smart for one. But I want them to get away from football and relax. Obviously, there are some guys that need to get healed up. If they have something academically to make up or they get behind, it gives them time to do that. If they can and the academics will allow it, it gives them a chance to go home."

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