Illini Prepare For Western Michigan Battle

The Fighting Illini football endured its most physical game to date in beating Iowa last week. Now, they must heal their bodies, freshen their minds and focus on a talented and dangerous Western Michigan team. With three games left on the season and a possible bowl bid at stake, there's no time to rest.

The early part of the week, Illinois players were stiff and sore, making practice difficult. Coach Ron Zook even ended practice a little early Monday to aid the healing process. Quarterback Juice Williams spoke for his body after the ferocious Iowa tilt.

"Beat up. Tired. It was definitely more physical than Wisconsin. It was what we expected. The previous two times we played Iowa, it was a hard fought battle. Guys came out of the game banged up. Injuries heal alot faster with a W, so I'll take it."

Senior defensive end Will Davis felt the same as Juice, although he knows how important it is to trick the body to ignore the pain and fight hard for three more weeks.

"Yeah, I'm definitely sore. This was our most physical game by far. They took a little off us this Monday, and we'll bounce back. Last year, Wisconsin banged us up and then we went to Iowa and came out flat. It's up to the seniors and older guys who have been through it to get the guys up and make sure they not only have a good game day but good practices."

Senior middle linebacker Brit Miller has embraced the pain.

"I told Coach Zook, man you put us through a train wreck last week. I think it was exactly what we needed to get up for a physical Iowa team. The body does start to take a toll right now, but I see the light at the end of the tunnel. Some of these younger guys might say this stuff is too hard, but I see the end of what I've done here and I'm not gonna take a play off."

Coach Zook was pleased to see the Illini beginning to bounce around again by Wednesday.

"You could tell they were back tonight. They were about as back to normal as they need to be. I was really impressed with Ryan Palmer (offensive tackle, returning from broken foot). He probably went a little bit more than I thought he would. He looks like he'll be ready to go."

While Illini players studied Western Michigan, much talk this week centered on the running back situation and the use of Eddie McGee as a receiver.

Running back Mikel LeShoure will miss the game with a broken jaw incurred while scuffling with a teammate. Coach Zook kept things within the family and wouldn't discuss details. But the Illini still have three runners prepared to go as Daniel Dufrene returned to practice after missing a week.

"Daniel was out here, and he was great. I talked with him a little after practice, and he was like a kid in a candy store. You can never have too many running backs. Daniel's out there ready to go, so we have three.

"Daniel had some personal things, but he cares about this football team. He realizes the team is important to him. It's a family. They all kid each other and mess with each other, but when it comes down to personal issues they're gonna stay together."

Juice is happy to see Dufrene back out on the field.

"Daniel brings another element to the game with his speed, his power running the football. It takes a lot of pressure off myself."

Coach Zook realizes there is a risk/reward having his backup quarterback play receiver. But life is full of risks, and Eddie McGee brings much to the table.

"We're not gonna put him in situations where he's gonna take shots. On the same token, he gives you another weapon on the field not only as a player but as a person. He's a competitor and wants to play. His attitude has been unbelieveable this year.

"Juice's biggest cheerleader is Eddie, and that's from the heart. I appreciate it, and I think he's gonna help this football team. I was at Pittsburgh with Slash (Kordell Stewart), and I played against him in Kansas City. There was a lot of things to prepare for because there's a lot you can do with that guy."

Williams knows what McGee's assets are and how he can help the team.

"If you go out and get hurt it's bad, but if you go out and make plays it's good. He's the backup, so unfortunately he doesn't see the amount of time I see. Him being out on the field has given him an opportunity to make plays and feel more a part of the team.

"We've been seeing he could catch the ball for the last couple weeks. We've just been keeping it to ourselves. We've been working on it, and he's been trying to learn the alignments, the plays and the depth of each route."

Wide receiver Arrelious Benn offered a tip for Eddie while stationed at receiver.

"Be physical. Eddie's athletic and can play a lot of positions. If he was lined up at safety on defense, he would come up and give a big hit. He don't look like it, but he's a real physical guy. I haven't seen Eddie drop a ball in practice since he went to receiver. He's a fast guy. I'm not gonna say he's faster than me, but he's a fast guy."

The Illini know they have their work cut out for them against the Broncos Saturday.

"When you play teams from a non-BCS conference, a lot of those guys feel they could have went to a bigtime program," Juice reminds. "They feel like their school can play with the Big Ten schools, SEC schools. They'll come out and compete that much harder to prove to everyone they can play against a top-notch BCS conference team. They'll try to come out and put it on us."

Brit Miller concurs.

"They're dangerous. Two years ago, Ohio beat us on a last second field goal. That really hurt our season. We've got to represent for the Big Ten this week. These guys beat two BCS conference teams last year, including Iowa. They put up a lot of points. They play a style of ball that's explosive.

"They make you play in space, and they have great athletes just like every college team does now. I think what makes them a challenging opponent is they have a lot of seniors. I know I'm a lot more confident as a senior than I was as a freshman. I have confidence playing against guys younger than me because I've been through more."

The strength of Western Michigan's defense is their secondary. Receiver coach Kurt Beathard needs his receivers to be physical.

"We have to pay attention to detail, be focused and be physical. They are good, they've been together for quite awhile. So we've got to concentrate on what we've got to do and to play as hard as we've ever played before."

Coach Zook doesn't have to deceive his team to get up for WMU.

"They're seeing the same things we're seeing. Our guys understand football, and they understand these guys (WMU) are good football players and are a good team. They also understand this team is gonna do everything they can do in their power to notch a Big Ten team on their belt. They'll play in a bowl game, and we want to make sure we'll play in a bowl game."

Illini upperclassmen are working diligently to fire up their teammates for the task at hand. Coach Zook gives much credit to the seniors.

"I think so. They started counting down the days, realizing their time's getting short. You tell them when they come in here how fast it's gonna go. I can't believe I've been here four years, it goes so fast. Like I told the seniors, if you guys had worked like this as freshmen, just imagine how much better you'd be. But that's a normal thing. Everybody does that."

Judging from the reaction of Illini spokesmen for the week, the team remains highly motivated and should play well Saturday.

Arrelious Benn: "They're gonna come in and play hard. They're a team we're not looking past. We're looking at them as a Big Ten opponent. We're just one step closer to our goal. We just have to take one game at a time. This is a very crucial game. Everything's down to the wire now, so we need to win."

Juice Williams: "We learned our lesson trying to take weekends off last year. We tried to let up on a couple guys, and we let the games slip away. But we remind ourselves every day we're not gonna give Western Michigan a break. We're not gonna look past them but take one game at a time."

Will Davis: "Our backs are against the wall, so we have to play every play like it's our last. That's a good thing. We realize we could win every game, but at the same time we could lose every game if we don't do what we're supposed to do. We have to play as hard as we can."

Brit Miller: "We put ourselves in survival mode. It's to the point now where we've got to win every game. This stuff's fleeting. I've got one more game here in Memorial Stadium, three more games and hopefully four. I told the guys, just get me four.

"These seniors are stepping up big. Sam Carson, Rodney Pittman are awesome. If we take the momentum from this past game, which was one of the roughest I've ever been a part of, to Detroit then we'll be all right. But there's no looking past these guys. Anybody can beat anybody."

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