Practice Week Intense As Illini Regroup

After an embarrassing loss to open the season, a football team can either go into a tank or use it as incentive to turn their season around. The Fighting Illini football team struggled with those thoughts early in the week as it prepared for the Illinois State game. It appears they had a good week of practice, but some self-evaluation was necessary.

The Illinois football players and coaches have a bad taste in their mouths. Nearly all interviewed during Camp Rantoul stated they were hungry to reverse the failures of the 2008 season, but the Missouri blowout gave them further reminder of what they don't want. They can't wait to go back onto the field to redeem themselves, but some soul-searching was a necessary first step.

There was a team meeting Monday to clear the air and find common ground. Some felt the team was overconfident, some thought they played tight, and a few felt the problem was one of poor execution. Some thought their pregame preparation went flawlessly, others felt a need to practice harder.

Despite these differences, the belief all shared was that Illinois is a better team than it showed last Saturday. According to junior defensive end Clay Nurse, they all agreed they must band together and rededicate themselves.

"We had a meeting, and we talked about how we feel about what happened Saturday. The general feeling of the players and coaches is that everyone is still confident and raring to go. To be honest with you, realistically we just moved on. We talked about it, looked at the film, looked at the problems and talked about the mistakes, and then we moved on to Illinois State.

"It was disappointing of course. It wasn't the outcome we wanted to have and how we didn't perform like we wanted to perform. Everyone loses, everyone is gonna have some disappointments. The good and great teams are the ones that handle adversity and move on to the next week."

Junior receiver Jarred Fayson, who missed almost the entire third quarter with severe leg cramps, agreed his mates are angry the way they played Saturday.

"Absolutely. For sure. A feeling of being embarrassed and all that. We're gonna come back and get better. It was definitely uncharacteristic of us. It's no excuse. We got beat, and we got beat bad. We've got to move on, correct things and work toward the next game."

Fayson believes strongly the mistakes are correctable.

"Absolutely. Everything that happened is definitely fixable. That's what we have to do is make our corrections and move on."

Junior linebacker Martez Wilson admitted it was hard sleeping after the loss.

"Yeah, it was really tough. Everyone was disappointed. We were expecting a win. We didn't do the job we needed to do in St. Louis. So we came back to Champaign and regrouped.

"I can't really explain it. We just can't go into a game expecting to win. We actually have to go out on the field and do it. That's where our attitude has to really show up. It can't just be on the practice field, it's got to be on Saturdays."

One of the hardest things for the Illini team to overcome was the anger of the fans. The pain of the loss was magnified just walking around campus.

"Yeah, there are some angry fans. But you've got to learn to deal with it. It challenges your mental toughness."

Wilson knows the outcome would have been far different had the Illini scored to make it 13-10 at the end of the first half.

"I think it definitely would have been a different ball game. We would have had a little momentum for the offense. I think when the offense does good and the defense stops the opponent, we get motivation from each other and pump each other up. And we play harder."

Both Wilson and Nurse agreed some players began to let down late in the game. Those issues have been addressed.

"Maybe some people are just predisposed to being that way," Nurse pondered. "As players, it's something we have to fix. When we saw guys looking down on the sideline or looking uninterested, players were getting on each other and said we still have a whole lot of game to play. We have a whole season left. I think we did a good job of that.

"For the players who were looking down and distraught, that will be addressed by the coaches. They will be sure that's fixed."

A number of Illini players stepped up this summer to serve as leaders. However, some may have cowered when the Missouri game got tough. Senior tight end Michael Hoomanawanui is one of those who understands leadership.

"You find out when things aren't going your way, the true leaders step up," Hoomanawanui states. "I consider myself a leader, and I've got to get the other guys to have a short memory and come ready to work. I told everyone whatever we were doing the last couple weeks wasn't working. Even the scout team has to pick up their level of play."

Senior center Eric Block spoke for the offensive line.

"We were probably too worried about some of the things they were doing and playing a little too passive. We need to go out and be more physical, be a physically dominant offensive line.

"We knew a lot about Missouri. We had a lot of time to think about them. We built up to that game all summer. But I think as an offensive line group, we lost focus on the things we do best."

Block felt pressure to be the offense everyone bragged about all fall. Perhaps trying to hard to make big plays backfired.

"I think we played tight. I think we were trying too hard to force those explosive plays we've been hearing about. We need to just go out and play. I think we need to go back to having fun. That's how you create those explosive plays, by going out and having a good time."

Practices this week have been intense and focused. Head coach Ron Zook was pleased with the effort Monday.

"We had a great practice. I couldn't have scripted it any better. The tempo was good. Their egos are bruised a little bit and hurt, but they should be. All of us didn't play the way we're capable of playing. That's what we've got to go do."

Zook announced he has opened up every position on the team to competition. He feels the team has enough depth to replace those who are not performing to their capability.

"We're gonna make sure guys get an opportunity to play. If they're not gonna play the way they're capable of playing, somebody else is. We have enough talent we can do that. That's 100% across the board."

To that end, Zook announced that receivers Cordale Scott and Chris James would share Jeff Cumberland's outside spot this week. And Fred Sykes will replace A.J. Jenkins at a slot position opposite Arrelious Benn. He made the changes due to dropped balls during the Missouri game.

He also announced that senior cornerback Dere Hicks would play nickel back this week and Travon Bellamy would start at cornerback. Bellamy and corner Tavon Wilson are both larger and stronger than Hicks and are better at getting off blocks to make plays. Hicks has experience at nickel, so the transition shouldn't be a problem.

"I pretty much could play both positions. The last 5-6 games of last year, I was playing nickel back. I made a couple plays by playing the nickel back. Hopefully, this year I just hope to build off that. Make the team better from that aspect."

Illinois is healthy. Zook and receiver coach Jim Pry both said Benn looked great all week and was fully recovered from his ankle injury suffered early in the Missouri game. Pry said Benn wanted desperately to get back into the game but just couldn't go.

Running backs Jason Ford and Daniel Dufrene were also able to practice all week after overcoming ankle sprains. Both are expected to see time against Illinois State Saturday.

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