Illini Motivated to Play Well in Big House

It can be tough coming back and playing hard the week after an emotionally deflating loss. But that is Illinois' task this week as they travel to Ann Arbor to take on the Michigan Wolverines Saturday. Fortunately, the Illini have plenty of motivation to keep them focused on a talented Michigan team.

Linebacker Brit Miller, a captain again this week, says the Illini believed they should have defeated the Wolverines at home last year, and they want some payback.

"You always want to beat somebody that beat you. I didn't let my brother win twice. I'm looking forward to this one. That's a game I think we have a good chance to win, and they took one away from us at home. So we're trying to repay that this year."

Coach Ron Zook named Miller, Arrelious Benn, Michael Hoomanawanui and Dave Lindquist captains this week, and he hopes the designation will light a fire under Benn in particular. Arrelious understands the necessity of getting back on a winning track.

"It's very important. In the Big Ten, we've got to come hard every week and prepare to win every game. It's gonna be pretty big (to win in Ann Arbor after 9 years). Just as big as the Ohio State game last year. Going into a hostile environment in Ann Arbor is like going into Penn State. We've just got to feed off the energy and go out and play."

Quarterback Juice Williams is equally aware of the benefits of winning at the Big House for the first time in nine years.

"Michigan is always gonna be Michigan, and you've got to be ready to play hard on offense and defense, especially with Michigan at home. You never want to lose two games in a row, so this game is very important. It's important for the guys to start believing and not hanging their heads, so this Saturday is huge. It would give the team confidence and give us momentum going into the rest of the Big Ten."

Miller knows the Illini will not overlook UM despite the fact they have struggled at times this year with a new coach.

"I think Michigan was looking for a big win against a talented team, and they got it. Wisconsin's tough, so that just proves that Michigan's ball players are ready to go. That opened our eyes as well. There's never a way we could overlook a game of this magnitude, new coach or not."

Brit also believes the Illini are not out of the Big Ten race, and their goals are still attainable.

"Penn State's doing great right now, but I don't think any team is gonna make it through the Big Ten schedule without a loss. There's so much talent, and there's so many vendettas. Being here for four years, I kind of understand how you grow into the guys you're playing against and really want to beat them. If anyone does go through unbeaten, that's gonna be a pretty good feat."

Defensive end Will Davis also knows the Illini will be ready for a peak performance. And he has a senior's wisdom, understanding that game outcomes cannot always be predicted.

"In the Big Ten, anybody can win any day. It's not always the best team, it's who's best that day. Everybody has their heads up. The seniors talked to the guys about playing hard and playing with a lot more emotion. Our heads are up, and we're looking forward to playing Michigan."

Michigan's defense is their strongest aspect, so it will take a mistake-free offense for the Illini to win. Penalties and other inconsistencies have hindered them, but Juice believes he and his teammates now understand what it takes.

"Offensively, we learned we can't beat ourselves. We can't have penalties that stall a drive, we can't turn the ball over with interceptions, and we have to be able to execute in a hostile environment."

The Illini have had success running the ball again this year, and they have used some two-back offense utilizing running backs Daniel Dufrene, Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford to keep defenses confused.

"Right now, with the level of talent we have right now, the tailbacks are a little further ahead of the fullbacks. We want to get some reps of plays both for Mikel and Jason as well as Daniel. The freshmen are both doing well. They're kind of finding their roles a little bit, and they're getting more comfortable with what we're doing offensively. So I'm pleased with the way they've been practicing and playing."

Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley sees much potential in the offense. He is working with his unit on consistency.

"There isn't any one area that's lacking. It's the consistency of executing. We've had parts of games where we've looked really good, and we've had parts of games where we've hit a lull, have a penalty or have a bad play. Trying to overcome those plays is what I'm looking for. Overcoming those plays and continuing to drive.

"You see it throughout the course of a game. We come out and we're hitting on all cylinders and move the ball down the field. But the thing that's shown up in the last few games is when we've had negative plays, things that put us what we call 'behind the chains,' second and long and third and long. We've got to find a way to get that fixed."

Illinois will need to score frequently Saturday, especially if their defense continues to struggle. Brit Miller thinks his defenders are finally turning the corner.

"The guys are really looking forward to it. We came out and practiced hard. Good teams practice rough, and good teams practice hard. I think we're finally understanding that you need to practice hard and kind of get these young guys going to get a lot better."

Special teams has also drawn more emphasis again this week. The kickoff team continues to evolve as Coach Zook has made some changes for Michigan.

"Yes, I have. So far, I like what I've seen. It's a little different kickoff return. But once again, guys have to go down and make tackles."

Zook has worked as much on his team's confidence level as much as their technique. Confidence and resiliency can take a team a long way.

"The thing our guys have to do, the thing we haven't done, is when something bad happens forget it. Go onto the next play, don't think about that play but go on to the next play. At times we played well, and at times we didn't play as hard as we need to play."

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