Illini Seek To Regain Edge In Practice

This week was about Illinois. Preparations have been made for the invasion of the Iowa Hawkeyes Saturday, but the main focus for the Illini football team in practice this week has been finding and cultivating its true identity while refocusing on its goals. Illinois' back is against the wall, and these last four games will determine its 2008 fate.

Illinois players, coaches and fans were mad and hurt by the loss to Wisconsin last week. Coach Ron Zook had to face media scrutiny. Illini players had to attend class while bombarded by criticism and icy stares. And the greater Illini Nation spent most of the week picking apart every little detail of what is wrong and whom to blame. In other words, there were sleepless nights and much soul searching.

From all indications, this week's practices have been the most intense all season. The Illini had two ways they could go. They could fear making mistakes and fear having a losing season. Or, they could relax and have fun with the game they love. The former creates muscle tightness and produces more losses while the latter maximizes the chances of winning.

Despite all the stress and pressure from early in the week, there is no doubt they had fun in practice. The players want to be winners, and they know they have not always played up to their ability. But they also know they haven't enjoyed playing the game they love. Perhaps they tried so hard to prove they are not "one-hit wonders" that they interfered with their own potential.

Whatever, they were hitting and cheering and competing in practice. They were uniting for a common cause. Both the offense and defense showed signs of breaking out of their lethargy. If they carry this attitude into the rest of their games, the results will likely be satisfying.

Senior linebacker Rodney Pittman predicted it when he spoke with the media Monday.

"It was tough losing to Wisconsin and we were pretty upset. But after watching film with some of the guys Sunday, we realized it was things we can control, things we need to do better. I think the guys are looking forward to coming out and practice, knowing we can do the things necessary to win these last four ball games.

"We're definitely looking forward to getting back on the field and getting back to playing basic football, doing what we do best. Get this bad taste out of our mouths."

Pittman saw increased action against Wisconsin because they employ a power running game instead of a spread offense with lots of downfield passing. Iowa is similar.

"Definitely, they run the ball alot and play traditional Big Ten football. Some of the teams these last few weeks play spread offenses, which allows only two linebackers on the field sometimes. Teams that allow three linebackers on the field is a plus for me. Playing Wisconsin and Iowa are teams you look forward to playing since you're young, so Iowa is definitely a team I've circled on my calendar."

Rodney's goals and those of the team are the same.

"We've got to treat every game like it's a must win. We want to win every game."

Fellow linebacker and frequent team spokesman Brit Miller concurs.

"Right now, we must do whatever we need to do to get a win this weekend. It's like we're now in our own little playoff, every game is so important. We've put ourselves in a hole with these losses, and we have to dig ourselves out weekly."

Miller knows the pressure is great, but he believes that can be a positive.

"The good thing about football is you can only win one game a week and lose one game a week. If you don't feel pressure, if you don't get butterflies in your stomach before a game, then you shouldn't play. I think the pressure makes you better. You don't want to mess up in front of your friends."

The Illini have pointed to this game since they laid an egg in Iowa City last year. Miller downplays this being a makeup game because more basic issues are involved. But he wants a win badly.

"You always want to get the win back. Iowa is playing great ball right now, so we know we have to really step up. They've beaten teams that we haven't beat. We're looking forward to them and hope we play a more error-free game than we did last year.

"I think Iowa always provides a great atmosphere. I think everybody who has struggled to beat them in the past wants a victory. If we play our style of ball, we'll be in it in the fourth quarter, and that's all we can ask of the team."

Brit has appreciated Coach Zook's intensity and focus this week.

"We respect Coach Zook for treating us like men. You don't want a coach to coddle you. You want him to make you better."

And Coach Zook would rather let actions on the field speak for him.

"I know this," Zook states. "We'll be ready to play Saturday."

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