Illinois junior defensive tackle Josh Brent has played well this fall, but his efforts often go unnoticed. Opponents have run over, around and through the defense at times, thanks in part to youthful inexperience at some positions. But the second half of the Homecoming contest with Michigan State showed some things that have Brent and his teammates encouraged.
"We moved the ball well the second half. We kept them from scoring the second half completely. There's definitely some positives that we can build on that we can actually see for ourselves."
The Illini need wins to get their swagger back, but any light at the end of the tunnel is better than nothing. In fact, Brent says the mood of the team is a hopeful sign.
"The mood is actually pretty good. We did a lot of good things out there in the game the second half. We're gonna build on it and take that momentum into the next game."
There are bound to be some players who have become negative with the losses and could serve as a disruptive influence if their attitudes persist. But Brent and his upperclassmen teammates are doing their best to keep these players focused on the task at hand.
"With adversity like we're going through, you're gonna have a few bad apples here and there. But our jobs as leaders is to keep those guys focused and keep them positive. I take that upon us as leaders to keep those guys on board."
How do you do that? Some fans have already given up on the season. Aren't some players feeling the same way?
"Just be positive. Don't get down about these games. Every team goes through adversity, they just go through it different ways. We're losing, and this is the way we deal with it."
Coach Ron Zook said the defense got tired of playing poorly. Their pride hurt, they ratched up their intensity second half, and it paid off. Is it as simple as that?
"It definitely is. We went in at halftime, and on the defensive side of the ball we just said, 'That's it.' We're just gonna play our hearts out. We've tried everything else, and it hasn't worked. We're just gonna let it all out. There was a good ending to it."
They've been coached up, they have practiced opponent plays and have done everything necessary to win. But they go out on Saturdays and play tight. Perhaps relaxing and playing for pride allowed their preparations to manifest on the field. Is this a formula that can work every week?
"Definitely. If all you've got to do is play your hardest every game to win, then why wouldn't we do it?"
A win Saturday night at Indiana is necessary to build confidence and momentum for the remaining games. It won't be easy even though Indiana has lost three games. Brent says there is a bigger rivalry with Indiana than many realize.
"This is a border rivalry. Illinois-Indiana, there's a lot of hatred in this game. Whenever Indiana comes in here, they try to take one from us on our own turf. When we go there, we try to do the same thing.
"It's not as much of a hype rivalry as we have with some of the other teams. But it's definitely gonna be a hard game to win because I know Indiana is gonna come with their best game."
Still, Brent says the players are starting to believe again. If they can sustain their good feelings and play well, they can get the win they need so badly.