Illini Wrap Up Preparations For Badgers

The mood of the Illini football team improved immeasurably after its rout of Indiana last week. Confidence is increasing, and thoughts of starting a run are closer to manifestation. But the next hurdle is Wisconsin, and the wounded but strong Badgers are ready to take their frustrations out on Illinois.

Wisconsin collapsed last week at Iowa after three emotionally draining losses to top teams. It was predictable and reminded of Illinois' loss at Iowa last year. But now the Badgers are mad, and they want to salvage their season. They are a talented power team, so the Illini will have to forget the Indiana game and come out focused and intense to win.

"Like Coach Zook says, you've got to put the big pads on," defensive end Will Davis reminds. "They have some big guys, and they like smashmouth football, but we love smashmouth football too. That's our defense's strength. So we've got to go out there and stop the run. Everything will fall into place for us if we stop the run."

Middle linebacker Brit Miller concurs.

"Wisconsin is a more physical team, maybe the most physical team we've seen all year. Growing up in Big Ten country and seeing the power "I" and big running backs running downhill, that's what you love seeing as a linebacker.

"It's man on man. It's your defense against their offense. There's no gimmicks or trying to trick you. They're gonna show you what they're gonna do, and they'll try to do it all day. That's what we like about them. They'll try to bully you, and we'll see how we do against that."

Defensive tackle Josh Brent is also looking forward to the Wisconsin challenge and explains differences in the Badger attack from previous opponents.

"They're definitely different, but not too much. They're just a traditional zone instead of those hard zones that you see with some of those scatbacks. They're more sidewise, letting those scatbacks get through those holes.

"For Wisconsin, it's more straight ahead, man on man, trying to pound it down your throat. I think it plays into our strength. As defensive linemen, we'd rather run straight ahead than run sideways. It definitely plays into something we want to do, so I think it will be good for us."

Wisconsin's no slouch on defense either. Receiver Arrelious Benn has considerable respect for the Badgers.

"That's a great team. Even though they started off slow, we know they're a great team. They have great athletes, great players and a great coach. We're going to their territory, and we have to come out with a win."

Quarterback Juice Williams acknowledges the talent on UW's defensive unit.

"Of course they've got great players. But we've got to go out there and worry about the things we can control. They're gonna make big plays, that's what they're there for. But we've got to go out and take control of the things we can. And go out there and have fun."

Much talk during practice this week was the continued improvement on both offense and defense. Offensively, the passing duo of Williams and Benn is improving every week.

"Yeah, we've grown our confidence together," Benn says. "He (Juice) knows where I'm at on the field, and I know he's gonna put the ball there, so all I have to do is run the route and get open."

Benn's position coach Jim Pry points to Juice's improvement as a big reason for Arrelious' four straight 100 yard receiving games.

"We spend a lot of time trying to find ways of putting him (Benn) in different positions where we can get him the ball. It's not as if anything's changed. We were calling a lot of the same stuff for all the games. But whether he (Juice) was flushed, or something happened, the play didn't develop. As we start to get better and better right here, Juice is in the pocket, plays are developing, and that's what you're seeing."

Talk also centered on the role of 14 freshmen who are receiving playing time. Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley is the beneficiary of 9 new players. He explains Coach Ron Zook's philosophy on using freshmen.

"If a guy is able to help us, we'll play him. It's Coach's philosophy to expect them to play, and if they're ready to play they will. It doesn't hurt us at all. I think it's actually a benefit that we have the depth and can only be better for it. The area of concern with young players is up front. But with Jeff (Allen, starting right tackle), he had the luxury of being here in the winter, getting spring ball under his belt. I'd like to see a little better depth up front, but it is what it is."

Besides the help in games, Locksley confirms that playing freshman helps future recruiting.

"Playing time is always something they talk about. We don't go out and promise guys playing time. We promise them the opportunity to play as freshmen, and that's been Coach's philosophy since day one. You don't expect a kid to come in and play if he doesn't expect to come in and play. If they're ready, we'll play them. If not, then we'll hold them."

Juice Williams knows what it is like to play as a freshman, and he is impressed with how well the current rookie crop has adapted to college.

"It's extremely difficult. You've just come from the Prom court, and now you're playing college ball in front of 100,000 fans. It's a lot pressure for those guys. Obviously, I was one of them two years ago, not knowing what to expect and just going where the wind takes me.

"As hard as it is, they show tremendous poise out there, and they do a great job executing the game plan offensively and defensively. You can't really tell these guys are freshman. They've come ready to play. They're gonna be a good backbone for this team. They're doing all the things us older guys are doing, and some are doing it better than us. So that's a huge benefit for this team.

"It's a characteristic of good teams that the older guys help out the younger guys. You've got to have that to be successful. And that's exactly what's going on here."

Freshmen need positive experiences to bolster their confidence so they can relax and utilize their athleticism. A good example is tight end Hubie Graham. He caught his first two passes against Indiana, and his position coach Pry has noticed a change in him already.

"Hubie struggled for awhile playing in that duress, the crowd and game pressure. We were trying to get him a catch. Finally, he got a couple shots in the last game.

"It's amazing what that did for him. Now he knows he can catch it in a game, and it's definitely helped his confidence. He's a kind of guy that, if he drops them in pregame it upsets him. You have to talk to him and tell him just to relax and catch them in the game. Don't worry about pregame."

The Illini defense was fired up to stop the offense in a 2-minute drill at the conclusion of Wednesday's practice. Yelling to support one another, they are playing better and are more unified according to Will Davis.

"I think for the last few games, you can see we're playing a lot better. All the guys have been working hard, and that's gonna happen. We had guys at a lot of new positions, and we hadn't had a lot of plays with this defense to get a lot of experience. So we're gonna have missed tackles, missed assignments, things like that. But we've done a good job of working hard in practice and getting it straightened out.

"We've got to trust our teammates. At the beginning of the season, at times we were messing up. The defensive line would try to help somebody else in their gap, but now we don't have to even think about helping. We can trust our teammates to be in their gaps and everybody has to do their own job."

Miller also sees growth in the defense. In particular, he likes the way the group is beginning to learn and adapt during the heat of battle.

"It's a progression. We're getting better every week. Maybe not to the public eye, but we're seeing things better. One of the best things that happened to us last week was that we were able to learn on the go. They (Indiana) came out and did some things we really weren't expecting them to do. We were able to learn on the sideline, and that's something we didn't do as good a job of previously.

"We were able to communicate with our dbs and linebackers and coordinate the line where we needed them to go. There was a lot of communication. You love seeing that as a middle linebacker because you know everyone is on the same page. We did that a lot better."

They will need to continue that improvement against Wisconsin Saturday.

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