Illinois set high goals this season, including a Big Ten Championship. After two losses within the conference, some of those goals may be out of reach. Sunday and Monday were dark days for the team. It certainly was for the fans. But like Coach Ron Zook says, the team needed to embrace the pain and learn from it.
"If you have high goals, and it doesn't hurt, then something's wrong. People who have high goals, when things don't go right, it hurts. But people with high goals are able to go on and do something special also."
Quarterback Juice Williams felt that pain, but he had little time to grieve since he must be a leader and cheer up his teammates. And he had the extra burden of meeting with the media.
"I'm feeling pretty well, I guess. Still living. The guys are trying to get their spirits up. Obviously, we lost a tough game this past weekend, and we're just trying to get the guys excited about playing football again and get ready to go Saturday."
After a lifetime in football, Zook is able to see the bigger picture.
"Let's think about this now. Look how far we've come in three years. You learn from it and go on. It's hard to win games. It's not the end of the world. We're still 3-3. There's a lot worse things going on in this world than losing football games. Everybody makes a big deal about it. Everybody's got an opinion. Hindsight, everybody's perfect. If it works, it's great. If it doesn't, it's not."
Defensive spokesman and middle linebacker Brit Miller echoes his coach's thoughts.
"(The loss) was a tough one for us. The good thing about it is, two years ago nobody would have cared. Then, 3-3 would have been great. Now, everybody's asking, 'What's going on? Why did you lose that game.' That just proves the program is coming up. There's still a lot of positives, and Coach pointed that out. It's not what we wanted, but it's not terrible. There's still a lot of football left. And that's what we have to concentrate on."
Juice understands how subtleties can have a major impact on a team's victory total.
"It's halfway through the season. We could still win out and have a pretty good year. The season is far from being over. It (3-3) is not that hard to believe considering it's college football. Crazy things happen every day in college football. We all had high hopes this team was better than 3-3, but the Big Ten is a tough conference so you have to expect whatever comes our way.
So, Coach Zook, was the team able to put last week behind them so they can give maximum effort against Indiana?
"I think so. I talked to Lou (Hernandez) in the weight room. He felt each day was much better than Monday, and it should be that way. You work awful hard. It takes awhile to get over it. And like I tell them, the more you have invested in something, the more it hurts. The only way you're gonna reach your goals is to stretch and step out of your comfort zone."
Williams also feels the team is coming around.
"It's hard to come out and be as positive as you would with a win. That's what Monday's all about, to get the guys back in the groove and get excited about playing college football. We want to change the negative thoughts in our head to positive thoughts come Saturday. If you have a winning mindset, you have the attitude if we didn't win this one, we'll win the next one."
Miller and his fellow seniors were reminded their college football careers are nearing an end. Remembering that will add a sense of urgency to their play.
"Coach put it out there for the seniors, we've got 41 days left in the regular season. We want that to be extended. You don't ever look up and say, 'Wow, that's all I've got left.' We take this stuff seriously. With half the games gone, we'll look back and try to do better the things we've not done well. Right now, it's just finishing drives and finishing ball games. And the defense has to stop people."
Indiana has been doing some grieving of its own. Expecting a big season with 8 home games and several senior stars, the Hoosiers have struggled. But the Illini know how dangerous IU is, and they know they have to play their best game to win.
"Indiana will be a team that is as good a football team as the others," Zook reminds. "I just asked the seniors how many times they have beaten them, and it's one time. It will be a game like last week. We've got to be ready to go."
Brit understands the importance of the game and how the Illini cannot take the Hoosiers lightly.
"We've got to come out and get a win this week. Indiana's a team that looks like they've struggled. But we're gonna get their best game. We have to give them our best game to be in the game. They're explosive, and that's what I'm trying to convey to my teammates. These guys have put up big numbers. They run an offense that has that capability, so hopefully Juice is on again and the defense will be rolling.
"This game will be a pivotal game. We try not to put any more importance on one than the other. But this week is the only game we've got. Having Indiana at home in a night game, we know the atmosphere will be great. I don't think the people from Illinois and Indiana get along too well, and that just makes the atmosphere better. I think it's two teams that can do good things and win ball games. We need to come out on top of this one."
The one good thing for the Illini is they don't have time to dwell on their miseries. Another game looms, so it is easier to forget the past when you are preparing for a new opponent. Zook sounds a note of optimism as he looks ahead.
"You have to get onto the next game. That's one good thing. A loss or a win, you go on to the next game. Learn from your mistakes, learn from what happened and go on. We're frustrated, we're upset about it. But we're going to get back on track."
And Brit Miller, reminded how many Illini fans continue to support them through thick or thin, wants to win one for them.
"We've got to get these guys a win because they've been out here supporting us every week."