Fighting Illini In No-Win Scenario Versus ISU

The Fighting Illini football team hosts the Illinois State Redbirds this Saturday evening at 6:00pm in Memorial Stadium. In a way, it is a no-win scenario for the Illini. If they win, no matter the score, fans still angry over the Missouri loss won't be impressed because they expect a win. If the game is close or ISU wins, the team may lose its fans for the season.

Illinois is heavily favored over Illinois State Saturday. The Redbirds lost badly to Eastern Illinois in their opener and their starting quarterback to thumb surgery. But the Illini can't take the game lightly. They have more problems than just winning the game. They must also regain their self-respect and the support of their fans.

On paper, this game should be the easiest of the year for the Illini. But after the debacle last week, the Illini cannot take ISU lightly. After all, they're a state school filled with Illinois products eager to defeat the school that refused to recruit them.

"We'll get a great test," head coach Ron Zook states. "They'll give us everything they've got. We're gonna need to be ready to play and take care of our own business. You always worry about games you're supposed to win. You know they're gonna come in and play lights out.

"The football team understands we can't take anyone for granted. Not that we did last week. But we must be ready to play, and we will be ready to play. On any given day, if you don't take someone seriously, who knows what happens.

"All football games are hard, and this is gonna be a hard football game. We're gonna have to play the way we're capable of playing. I feel like we will. We're gonna find out Saturday."

Senior tight end Michael Hoomanawanui knows ISU will give their best effort. After all, his father played football there.

"I'm still sick from last weekend, but I've got to let it go. Illinois State's coming in here. If I were on their side, this is like a Super Bowl or National Championship. It's a chance to take on a bigger Division 1 team. I know they're preparing to take us down. We've got to get the mindset that we're preparing for Ohio State and go in there Saturday prepared for a battle."

Hoomanawanui is from Bloomington, Normal's sister city, so he is familiar with many ISU players.

"I was looking at tape and laughing at some of the names of guys I grew up playing prep football with and going to school with. So it should be fun Saturday."

If anything good came out of last Saturday, it is the knowledge that Illinois cannot take anyone lightly.

"We have no room to take any team lightly," junior receiver Jarred Fayson reminds. "It doesn't matter what team they are, what conference they're in. We've got to come to play."

Senior cornerback/nickel back Dere Hicks spoke along similar lines.

"Everybody is out here to practice hard every day so we can be prepared for Saturday. I just think we have to go back to the drawing board and rally together as a team."

Junior linebacker Martez Wilson, who nursed a neck stinger this week, agrees.

"They're an opponent like everyone else. You can't take them light, expecting to win like we did last week. We have to come in and do it, play hard and get a win. It's a must."

Senior center Eric Block expanded on the same theme.

"Obviously, we'd like to get this taste out of our mouths from the Missouri game. They've got a good team. They're a talented group. But the faster we can get to the next week, the better.

"You can't look past ISU. Just watching them on film, they're a good group. They have real work-hard type guys. So if you don't respect a team like this, there's a good chance of getting beat. Absolutely, we'll see their best game. We have to prepare for it. We have to give them our best. We can't look past ISU because we are trying to focus on righting this ship."

The paradox of all sports is that the harder you try to win, the more pressure you place on your body, the tighter and less athletic it becomes. But if you take a team lightly and fail to give your best effort, you will fail as well. Somehow, each player and each team must find a middle ground according to Block.

"From the mental aspect of a football player, there's a certain balance. You can't get too confident, but you have to have confidence in yourself and your team. I think we're trying to find that right now. Hopefully, we'll be able to find that this week because we have a long season ahead of us. The sooner we find that balance the better.

"I think a lot of it was pressure we put on ourselves last week. We need to just go out and get back to playing. There's a sign in our offensive line room that says, 'Go play.' We need to forget all thoughts about what we should be and just relax and play. We need to go back to why we love the game and why we play it."

Illinois' confidence was shaken by the Missouri loss, but a quality win would help restore self-respect. Hicks was asked if the Illini have lost confidence.

"I don't think so, man. Every time you take a loss, it's devastating. We are competitors and want to win. But we have to bounce back and create more energy. We can't just sulk as a team."

Some Illini fans have already given up, believing the losses late last year and the first game of 2009 prove the team is incapable of sustaining victories. But Illini players disagree. Junior guard Randall Hunt is convinced 2009 is not a repeat of 2008.

"No, I don't think that's the case at all. We're a new team and we have a new attitude. We have to come out and perform. We can't do the things that stop ourselves. If we can stop the turnovers and stupid mistakes, who knows where we could possibly go?

"It's an attitude change from last year. We just have that mentality that we have to work hard and take nothing for granted. Coaches talk about facing adversity all the time and how you're going to stand up against it. We just have to man up."

Illinois State is led by new head coach Brock Spack. The Rockford native starred at linebacker for Purdue and was most recently defensive coordinator at his alma mater before moving to Normal. Zook expects Spack's defense to be sound.

"I knew him some from recruiting. He's done a heck of a job wherever he's been. As you watch them on tape, you can see his style of defense."

Offensive coordinator Mike Schultz expanded on ISU's defense.

"They've got a good blitz package. Good players who play extremely hard. It looks like they have some leaders on the field. They present some problems for us.

"He's doing some of that (which he used at Purdue). We've studied Purdue, we've studied Louisiana Lafayette where their defensive coordinator was at. And of course we have the one game that they played."

Offensively, ISU runs a spread offense similar to what Joe Tiller did at Purdue. Their quarterback will be an untested redshirt freshman, so Illinois hopes to apply pressure to disrupt his game. There may be some changes in the starting defensive unit for the Illini.

Hicks and Travon Bellamy will switch positions, with Bellamy now at corner and Hicks the nickel back. Donsay Hardeman will likely still start at safety, but freshmen Walt Aikens and Terry Hawthorne got reps there this week. It is possble one or both will see game action at safety.

Zook brought the upcoming challenge into focus.

"Our two biggest emphases this week are one, making sure we get our football team corrected. Two, this football team (ISU) is coming from the same league as the team Iowa played last Saturday and had to block two field goals to win the game.

"All football games are hard, and this is gonna be a hard football game. We're gonna have to play the way we're capable of playing. I feel like we will. We're gonna find out Saturday."

Hunt summed up the feelings of the entire squad.

"The coaches tell us not to focus on the score. Of course it's there, but if we go out and perform who knows what will happen. I think a lot of good things will happen on Saturday. I just want to win."

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