Zook, Illini Players Discuss Missouri Game

The hype is nearly over. The 2009 Arch Rivalry game between the Fighting Illini and Missouri Tigers in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis is one day away. Both states are in a frenzy for their respective teams, and the atmosphere Saturday should be electric. With the importance of the game for both teams, one final look at the matchup is in order.

Illinois has perhaps its best overall talent in recent history. Led by senior quarterback Juice Williams and a large corps of skill players, the Illini have high hopes for the 2009 season. However, Missouri has had its way with the Illini in recent times, and they are a formidable foe again this year.

Illinois coach Ron Zook has great respect for the Tigers.

"People talk about how they lost a lot of starters, but if you go back and look at their roster, the great majority of their starters have played an awful lot. So they have a lot of experience. Their linebacker (Sean) Weatherspoon is as good as anyone we'll see. The nose tackle (Jaron Baston) the same thing. Just dominant players, game-changing type players.

"All their secondary has played against us, and a couple of them for two years. Defensively, they've played extremely well. Last year, we couldn't run the ball against them. They sit in a 4-3 type defense and get into a Double Eagle and those type of things. Even with some new starters, we look at them as a veteran football team.

"Offensively, the quarterback (Blaine Gabbert) had 43 snaps last year. When Chase (Daniel) took over, he took over from a quarterback who was an awfully good player. He came in as a freshman and caused Illinois havoc. So it's kind of been a tradition for the new quarterback to kind of have his way with Illinois.

"All the receivers have played quite a bit against us even though they're new. Their running back (Derrick Washington) was one of the better backs we saw last year. Next to the guy at Ohio State and the guy at Iowa, he might be the next best running back. He is a big, tough, strong guy, and he can play. He had 142 yards against us last year.

"There'll be some differences just because the quarterback situation is a little bit different. But the quarterback is a big, strong, physical guy and is better than you think. Our guys have to be able to get him on the ground. Chase was not gonna run unless he had to. This guy may take off at any moment. The big mobile quarterbacks are the guys that concern you defensively.

"They're a football team in our minds that's gonna be better than what they're saying or people give them credit for.

"I tell our football team, one of the great things about this game is the rivalry. A lot of our guys weren't born when this rivalry started. So they don't know the history. They do know it's a bowl-like atmosphere, an exciting environment. They're gonna be juiced up."

Most people speculate that Mizzou will run a conservative offense to begin the game as the new offensive coordinator and new quarterback settle in. The Illini defense strugged stopping Washington last year, so the thought is the Tigers will try to run it down Illini throats.

However, Missouri is known for its wide open style, and it will likely continue that. Illinois must be ready to defend the whole field while trying to stop the run first. Missouri expects to score early and often, so a conservative approach might be counterproductive.

Defensively, MU will likely stack the box with defenders to minimize the Illini option running attack. If they can force Illinois to pass, they will have an advantage. Plus, they undoubtedly believe from last year's film that Illini quarterback Juice Williams is turnover-prone when blitzed frequently. If Missouri can get Illinois into third and long situations, it could be a long day for Zook and his team.

On the flip side, Illinois and new offensive coordinator Mike Schultz will try to establish the run and balance run with pass. They will try to keep the chains moving, keeping their own defense off the field as much as possible.

Most people believe it will be a high-scoring affair, and the Illini will need to outscore Mizzou to win. But given the unpredictability of college football, it may end up a defensive struggle. Special teams will likely play a big role, and Illini fans fear breakdowns like occurred last year.

However, the Illini have worked hard to overcome their weaknesses and field a confident, hungry squad that is deep at most positions. It could be a tremendous battle between quality teams from two powerful conferences, the Big 10 and Big 12.

A number of Illini players voiced their thoughts and opinions of the upcoming game, and those follow:

* Illini quarterback Juice Williams: "Missouri has been very good the last few years. It is a team that flies around defensively, and they have people who want to make big plays. They're well coached, and we're gonna have to be ready to play.

"We have an opportunity to play in an NFL stadium, and I think that's very exciting for the young guys. It gives them an opportunity to play on the same field as the professional football players. It's a different atmosphere, very different from what we see every week. It's a lot of fun to play in.

"(On Weatherspoon's comment about squeezing the pulp out of Juice) He's a great football player. The comment he made about squeezing the pulp out of me is very authentic. Statements like that just make the game of college football more fun and exciting to play.

"Offensively, we work very hard to put up a lot of points everytime we take the field. But it's always difficult to come out against a defense that's ready to hit, make big plays and get turnovers.

"It's my senior year, my last go-around. I think it's vital to get off to a good start, with the first game obviously being against Missouri.

"We have to do the little things. Not turn the ball over, convert third downs, not put ourselves behind the chains. If we can take care of those things, we should be fine.

"They're gonna come out, fly around and try to hit us hard. They'll try to get turnovers and disrupt the offense. We've just got to find a way to hold up and somehow be successful out there.

"They have a different package for spread teams and a different way to counter the zone read. We've been trying to get guys in different gaps since they try to overload one side and things of that nature. If we can have an answer for that, we should be fine.

"I think the team is more focused this season than ever before. Guys are really getting in tune, watching film more and really focusing on our opponent. Any time a team is ready to lock and load this early in the week (Monday) is always good."

* Middle linebacker Martez Wilson: "We don't see them as a different team because they're not gonna change completely. We don't have too much film on their new starting players, but we look at old film of the ones that are returning and base our game plan on what the coaches decide. It's a little more difficult not knowing their players. You've just got to wait til the game. We're coming in expecting the best from their players.

"The atmosphere is very exciting. You have half Missouri fans, half Illinois fans in an enclosed dome. It's loud, so you just have to learn to keep your composure. But the environment is fun, and it's a good way to begin the season.

"Derrick Washington is an explosive back, he can run the ball very well. Our number one thing coming into the game is to stop the run. We do feel they're gonna use him a lot more because he's a returning starter and one of the best players on the offense.

"Since we don't have much film on him (Gabbert), we'll just go into the game with our regular defensive plan. We'll respect whatever comes at us."

* Receiver Arrelious Benn: "We know that we can score on those guys. They have a great defense led by their linebacker Weatherspoon. They're gonna come out and compete. It should be a great game."

* Defensive end Doug Pilcher: "I don't think it's gonna be a different team. They're still running the same offense as before. Of course, they've lost a couple key players from last year. But just like we are this year on defense, we're gonna find younger players to step up to starting roles, and I'm sure they'll do the same. We're looking forward to playing them.

"It's very important (to get off on the right foot). It's always nice to win that first game, and beating this caliber of team is even better. . Of course, with a good Big 12 opponent like Missouri, it's a nice way to start off the season.

"Obviously, we came up short the last two seasons. We're just gonna go play the game and see what happens. I don't think there's any big chip on our shoulder or anything. Of course, we want to win the game, and we're going into it with that mentality no matter who we're playing.

"I think it's a fun rivalry and a great way to start the season. I think going to St. Louis is fun because it's a bowl-like atmosphere.

"Derrick Washington is a great running back, and we're looking forward to the opportunity of playing him."

* Running back Jason Ford, who lives near St. Louis and knows a number of Missouri players: "A lot of people are coming. I think 100 people texted me, a lot of people from school. I got about 15-16 tickets from my teammates.

"Last year, I didn't really know what to expect. This year, I know what to expect. I'll be ready. I've got the protections down, I know everything that's going on. It'll help out a lot.

"As a rivalry, we talk a lot of trash back and forth. We just want to go into the game and get a win."

"I played basketball with Wes Kemp (Missouri receiver) from about 6th grade to about 10th. Blaine (Gabbert) went to a different camp, but me and him worked out together with Wes Kemp. We thought about going to a couple different schools together, but that kind of broke off.

"Blaine Gabbert is big, kind of fast and has a real strong arm. So he's pretty good. I talked to Blaine last week, but I talked with Wes last night (Monday). I think Wes is starting at one of the receivers."

* Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui: "It's another great opportunity to start off the season against a great team in Mizzou. We haven't beaten them the last two years, so it's definitely a big point this year.

"Defensively, they lost a couple key guys, but they still have a great linebacker. Their defensive line is always good. I don't see that big of a change. We need to get our young guys to understand it's a big rivalry and play like upperclassmen."

* Cornerback Dere Hicks: "I'm more than ready. It definitely is the game we've been pointing to all summer.

"I think it will be the same offense, but anytime you lose a player like Jeremy Maclin, Chase Daniel, and their tight end, little things are gonna change. I'm sure they'll have great players to plug right in.

"We don't know too much what to expect. But from what I hear, the quarterback is a very good quarterback. He's very fast and has a good arm. So we're up for the challenge."

* Center Eric Block: "It's the opener, so obviously there's gonna be a lot of nerves. You do whatever you can to be ready for the first game, but there's only so much you can do. They may come out and give us something different than we've ever seen before. At the same time, we have a new offensive coordinator, so we might come out and give them something they've never seen.

"(about Baston) He's a great player. I got to play against him a lot last year, and he's tough. He's stocky, solid, a strong kid, and he moves real well. It's a great challenge off the bat. We'll be facing some great defensive tackles and some great defensive lines in the Big 10. It's a challenge.

"They've got a great defense. They've got some players on that defense. I remember Weatherspoon last year, and he's solid. Their offense is very highly touted, but their defense is tough too. All of us are really excited to get after it and see where we're at.

"We feel pretty confident this year. They obviously have a pretty good swagger, and we have one too. We've built up a lot of confidence. We've been working hard all year, and we feel like it's paid off. Hopefully, we'll come out confident and give them a good game."

* Defensive end Clay Nurse: "High-powered passing, power running, it seems all-around from the film we've been watching. They can hit you from any angle and any level. It's definitely gonna be a challenge.

"From what we've seen, he (Gabbert) has all the attributes to be a big-time player. He has pretty good mobility in the pocket for a guy that size. It presents a challenge for the d-line.

"It's an all-out effort for 60 minutes. You've just got to block it out, your body doesn't matter. It's one of those games you just have to win, so you have to forget the pain, forget the tiredness. Just do it.

"They have a right to be cocky. We haven't beaten them in four games. They can say whatever they want, do whatever they want. We have to go out there and play our game and knock that cockiness off the shelf a little bit."

* Receiver Jarred Fayson, playing his first game for the Illini after transferring from Florida: "I can't wait. There's nothing like going out there and making it happen for real. I don't think I'll be too overly excited. It's not like I came from a smaller program. I've had my share of big games in my short career at Florida.

"(will he be more excited for his first reception or first punt return?) I'd say my first punt return for a touchdown."

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