Miller And Illini Focus On Homecoming

Coach Ron Zook has spent this week reminding his Fighting Illini football team about the importance of providing a quality show for all the alumni returning for Homecoming. There is no room for a letdown after the big Michigan win as the Minnesota Gophers are a good team eager to become bowl eligible by beating their coach's former school.

Zook could ask for no better spokesman for his mantra than Big Ten Defensive Player Of The Week Brit Miller. The Illini came out flat at Iowa last year after two highly emotional games against top opponents, but Miller believes the Minnesota game is different than last year despite coming off Penn State and Michigan road trips.

"I think we have that experience from last year. One of the things we've been able to do as a team is learn from mistakes and past experiences. We have been in emotional games, but the thing I've learned from Coach Zook is that every game has to be emotional if you're gonna have a chance of winning. The thing about this year, after two tough games we're coming home. We don't have to go to a hostile environment like Iowa. It's a good feeling."

The middle linebacker understands the importance of the next few games.

"This could be a difference maker. You think of a season and how things go on a roller coaster, right now we're on an upswing. We're playing well, and the schedule's working out right for us. We're at home for a couple big games, three of the next four are at home, and this could be a pivotal part of our season.

"Each game is important, but these next four games are gonna be huge for what kind of a team we are. I hope these young kids understand that you're just playing one team. You're not better than them until you beat them.

"Coach Zook and Coach Disch have a thousand ways to say, 'you've got to play this week.' We never won because someone said we're supposed to. If you pay attention to that, you might as well not be in the game."

Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley prefers to use a positive approach with his players rather than dwelling on what might go wrong.

"Anytime you get a chance to play at home, our goal is to go undefeated at home. We've got a great venue here and great fans. Just the familiarity of being at home and going through a normal routine, being able to rely on the energy of your home fans behind you really helps. It's good we get to come home finally.

"There's always a chance for a letdown, but there's always a chance to build on what you've done. We're gonna go for the latter. We're gonna talk about building confidence on what we were able to do last week."

Minnesota's defense has drawn Locksley's attention. They are more experienced, and they are more athletic than last year. It will be a good test for his offense.

"They're really improved their athleticism. They have a new defensive coordinator who's brought some pretty sound schemes, and they're playing with a lot of energy. They're doing a pretty good job of taking the ball away. It's gonna be a big challenge for us to make sure we take care of the football. And when we have a chance to make big plays, we've got to take advantage of it."

Champaign's Mikel LeShoure was excited to score his first collegiate touchdown last week, but he was also excited to see the continued improvement of his offensive linemen, who were especially valuable helping free fellow running back Daniel Dufrene on his long touchdown scamper with a swing pass.

"I think we've got a real good offensive line, real physical, big and athletic. We have some guys who can move their feet real good, and they're starting to know each other a little better. They know where each other's gonna be, and the timing's better. I think we get better every week up front."

Left tackle Xavier Fulton agrees with LeShoure. The line is working better as a unit every week.

"Definitely I think that's true. Every week, all around everyone's improving. As an offensive line, we are trying to keep our fundamentals and techniques. As long as we keep doing it over and over again, after awhile it's going to click. It's clicking for us now."

Co-Defensive Coordinator Curt Mallory, fresh off a big win against his alma mater, knows his defense will be tested against the Gophers' star passing combo of quarterback Adam Weber and receiver Eric Decker. Weber is completing passes at a phenomenal rate, and Decker is the recipient of many of those passes. Mallory knows his secondary will need to keep track of Decker at all times.

"They move him around alot. They'll motion him, and they'll get him the ball not only throwing to him but handing off to him. He's obviously a go-to guy and one heck of a player."

After giving up a few wide open pass plays last week against Michigan, the Illini secondary needs to learn from its mistakes according to Mallory.

"Michigan was running an exchange route where they were running deep crossing routes. They had us on one where the safety just has to buy it, just take it, and he was too far inside. The receiver ran right away from him. That's just technique.

"And then on the fade route towards the end of the game, the safety's just got to get off the hash and go make the play with the corner helping get his hands on him. Those are all correctable mistakes, things we work on and know we can get corrected."

Mallory is encouraged by his defense's improvement as some of his youngsters gain maturity and experience, especially at linebacker and safety.

"I think they're coming along. Russell Ellington is getting reps in there now. Martez (Wilson) is only in his second year. Those guys are getting better.

"Our safeties are essentially brand new. They've all gotten a lot of work, and they've gotten better each week. They're eager to learn, eager to get better. We've still got a long way to go. As long as they keep making progress, I think they've got a chance to be a decent secondary and decent back 7 with the linebackers."

The Illini players all realize Minnesota will be a tough test for them, so they are getting mentally prepared for a top effort for Homecoming.

"We have to heal up our injuries and use the momentum from last week to come back hard this week," receiver Arrelious Benn explains. "Minnesota is a great team. We just have to focus on what we've got to do, come out and execute plays and have fun."

"They had a new coach last year," defensive end Will Davis reminds. "This year, they have a lot of guys with experience. The offense and defense have been put in now, so they're just better this year. They're executing better against other teams, and we've got to do our best to stop it."

"They're aggressive, they've got a record of 5-1, and they're gonna come out ready to play," quarterback Juice Williams acknowledges. "We've just got to be ready for them."

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