Ron Zook Remains Resolute Despite Adversity

Fighting Illini football coach Ron Zook remains resolute in his belief in his team's potential to have a successful season despite falling to 1-3 on the year. In his Sunday postmortem of the Penn State loss, Zook discussed some of the things he and his staff are considering to revive a dormant offense and strengthen defensive resolve.

Illinois coach Ron Zook has been bombarded about changes that might be needed in the face of his team's struggles. At this point, he is considering all his options.

"Right now, I'm considering changing everybody, including myself."

Most talk centers around senior quarterback Juice Williams, who remains inconsistent despite becoming the Illini's career total offense leader Saturday.

"There's an awful lot of conversation talking about that. When you make a change, there's a lot of things you've got to think about. There's a lot of ball to be played yet, and contrary to what a lot of people think, we still think we have an opportunity to be a good football team."

Translated, he will not make a change unless he feels it will give him more victories. There are times when changing quarterbacks can be beneficial for a team. But among the many factors to be juggled is the question of which quarterback is likely to recover from a benching and perform better as a substitute rather than a starter.

"Just like sometimes in basketball, you bring a guy in just to energize them and make plays. But what if that doesn't work? Now what do you do? You can't just go back and forth. What are you willing to risk if it doesn't work?"

The emotional impact on Williams is a factor. Is he better off playing his way out of his slump or watching Eddie McGee play in his stead?

"Absolutely. Juice is a great kid. He's got the weight of the world on his back now. He's not backing down."

Illinois was down only 7-3 at the half, but it played poorly in the second half while Penn State rolled with a strong running game and complimentary passing. Zook realizes the lack of offensive production in the second half hurt the defense's ability to compete against a quality PSU offense.

"The first half, we played like we've got to play. The second half, we didn't. We need to come out in the third quarter and do the same things we did (in the first half). I'm not gonna say we got worn down. Our guys are in condition, their strength numbers are up.

"But there's an emotional thing I'm sure. Here we go, we've got to go back out there again. But there's gonna be days when the offense is clicking and the defense is not. Right now, the offense is not. We've got to fix both things. I'm sure that had a lot to do with all the yardage."

Defensive end Michael Buchanan, a 6'-5", 220 pound freshman, saw more playing time Saturday. However, on the play after Evan Frierson went out with a minor injury, PSU quarterback Daryll Clark ran untouched over Buchanan's spot on the way to a 51 yard gain. Zook says Buchanan can help.

"His ability, his rush skills, he has some tools we think will develop into a fine player. We want to get him in there and use him. You look at his size, and he doesn't look it. But he's got a lot of body strength. He's much stronger than you think, and he plays with leverage. He's gonna be fine. We planned to use him more at Ohio State, but he kind of had a tough week the week before the Ohio State game."

Much talk centered on the offense. Is the problem proper play-calling?

"Every play you call is designed to be successful. Some of the plays were really good for us one time, and not (the next time). That's an execution deal. In the first half, against a pretty good defense, we executed pretty well.

"Our first thought is to play more players to make sure we've got guys who are fresh out there in the third quarter. We need to continue to evaluate to find the right scenario.

"The first play of the second series of the second half, Juice throws the ball behind him. It was a bad ball. It's got a chance to be a big, big play. It's one guy here, it's one guy there. We've got to all get on the same page."

Zook agreed the team gained some confidence in its offensive potential with its success in the two-minute offense at the end of the game.

"Yes, and the series late in the first half. We take the ball from the two yard line and go down the field. It's almost like an invisible wall, but we've got to bust through it. How can we get it down there and not get points? That's the thing that's pulling everybody's hair out."

Punt returns haven't produced much yet this year. Jarred Fayson had one return for 5 yards Saturday. But Zook feels the team is making progress with its special teams.

"I haven't looked at that part of the tape yet, but we weren't too bad there. The punt return, we only had the one. Once it was our fault because we had him lined up too close when they were kicking with the wind. That was our fault. For the most part, we're making progress in the return games.

"In the Ohio State game, there was one he (Fayson) should have gotten. He told me it was raining like the devil, not that he lacks confidence in catching them, but he didn't want to take a chance of turning the ball over when it is wet."

Zook used freshman Terry Hawthorne instead of A.J. Jenkins as a kick man alongside Arrelious Benn.

"Terry's an electric guy that, once he gets his hands on the ball, he can make some things happen. I still like A.J. Jenkins. He may be as talented as any of them. A.J. made a couple blunders in the Ohio State game you can't have. For us to have the type of return game we need to have, we have to make sure we don't make mistakes in terms of when we come out (of the endzone) and when we don't."

Zook discussed the injuries from the Penn State game.

"It was a physical game. Oh-Oh (Michael Hoomanawanui) should be okay. Right now, I would list him as probable. Same with Corey Liuget. They are sprained ankles, not high ankles. Garrett Edwards is okay. They did an MRI, they did the whole thing because of what happened with Martez (Wilson). He just has a muscle strain in his neck. He should be fine.

"Evan Frierson got a contusion on his knee, but he'll be okay. Other than the bumps and bruises, I think we're okay. Anytime you play a game like that, you can expect to have some bumps and bruises. The good thing is we should be okay for next week."

Zook feels his team is responding as well as can be expected under the circumstances.

"These guys are frustrated, they're upset. But they're not ready to throw the towel in. They're gonna come out and do the same things we've been doing. The one thing about this football team since we've been here is they've always given us what we asked. But I would be concerned about them if they weren't upset. These guys want to win, it's important to them."

On a personal level, Zook is struggling as much as his players.

"It's no day at the beach, obviously. There's very little sleep and a lot of Pepto Bismol. But you know what, that's part of the profession. I understand that, and our coaches understand that. It's our job to get it fixed. As hard as it is, we're gonna get it fixed or die trying."

That last comment may sound like a broken record to frustrated Illini fans. But Zook repeated the remark with more conviction than anytime previously.

"We're gonna get this fixed. I know I keep saying it, but it's gonna happen."

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