Illini Look To Reverse Fortunes vs. Michigan

The Michigan Wolverines are coming to town for a 2:30pm game at Memorial Stadium Saturday. The Fighting Illini have now lost nine straight games to Division 1 teams, and they have lost 9 games in a row at home to UM. A large number of former Illini stars will be in town for Varsity "I" Weekend, and they are tired of failure. A win is essential.

Illinois went to Michigan's Big House last year and pulled out a major victory. Any victory over the rival Wolverines is special because it doesn't occur frequently. The Illini last defeated UM at home in their Rose Bowl year 1983. They tied 3-3 two years later, and the Wolverines have won in Champaign every game since.

Illini center Eric Block remembers the mystique of Michigan and the rivalry between the schools dating back long before Red Grange ran wild to help dedicate Memorial Stadium.

"You immediately get hit with all the tradition when you think of Michigan. We got to play at Michigan last year, and it's pretty awesome. It's one of the pre-eminent venues in college and one of the best football teams ever.

"Last year, we liked the way the game ended up. It was a great game. They jumped out on us, and we came back. The year before that, it was a really tight game. We've had some real good games with them, so that's kind of exciting. It's been kind of a rivalry, and we're looking forward to it."

The Wolverines have some of their swagger back after a losing record in Coach Rich Rodriguez' first year at the helm. Boasting a 5-3 record, they want vengence for the Illini victory last year, and they expect to get it.

Freshman quarterback Tate Forcier is getting beat up running their spread option attack as the season goes along, but he's still the spark for their offense. And star defensive end Brandon Graham spearheads the defense. The Illini have to play better than they have to pull the upset.

Illinois coach Ron Zook has great respect for the Wolverines offense, and with good reason.

"Obviously, they're leading the league in scoring and in rushing. This is a football team with four seniors on the offensive line that have done a heck of a job. They're the same players, but it's a different psyche and a different attitude than last year. They're playing pretty well."

Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore knows the Illini have their hands full with the UM offense.

"They're a good football team. Like the Ohio States and Penn States of the world, they've got a great offensive line, they've got a good solid running back, an athletic quarterback, and they'll present problems."

Linebacker Ian Thomas sums up what the Illini must do to contain the potent Michigan attack.

"The quarterback they have now is kind of shifty and can run the ball, so that's a real threat. We've just got to stop the run and contain the quarterback."

UM has a lot of defensive talent also.

"Defensively, they're doing a lot of the same things that we do on defense," Zook relates. "They're an eight-man front. Greg [Robinson] spent a lot of time in the NFL. It's funny because I see some similar things that we try to get done on the defensive end.

"Brandon Graham is the real deal. He plays with great intensity and emotion. We are going to have our hands full."

Block agrees.

"Their defense is good. Their d-line is pretty impressive. Brandon Graham is a heck of a player for them. He's as good a defensive end as I've seen. And then their defensive tackles are strong and quick. So they have a really good front four, one of the better ones we've faced all year.

"Their linebacking corps is good, and I assume their defensive backfield is pretty good too. Their defense presents some challenges for us, but those are things we hope to overcome."

What comes to the mind of Illini quarterback Juice Williams when the Wolverine defense is discussed?

"Very aggressive. They like to tackle and hit people. That's a scary thing. But if we execute and run our stuff, we should come out on top."

That last sentence sums up the entire season so far for the Illini. They have played poorly, but they still feel they could turn their season around if they could get a victory, any kind of victory.

"It's hard, your confidence gets a little bit shot," Gilmore confirms. "We've just got to get one win to get over the hump. I think once you get that, things will start to snowball a little bit for you.

"I think the spirits are good and our players are coming to work every day. They're having a little fun doing it, so hopefully it's gonna turn into some wins. We just have to keep working at it."

Every week, the Illini believe they can win. And except for the ISU game, every week they have played poorly and lost. Zook and his staff continue to work hard, and so do the players. So every new game is an opportunity to get the win they need to boost confidence so begin to play like they believe they can. Michigan is the only game of importance right now according to Zook.

"I don't think there's any question that it's a major game for us. I think this for a lot of reasons. If you go back and look at the history of this game, the history that's happened in this game in this stadium, there are a lot of people who for them this is 'the game.'

"They're all 'the game' to me right now. Obviously, it's an important game, a big game. It's a home game. Hopefully we're going to have a crowd out there, and we're going to need everybody. It'll be an opportunity for us to get back on track.

"As I told our football team, I don't know that there's anybody that we played this year that if we played the way we're capable of playing, we could have won. That's the thing right now. You have to put all that stuff aside. You have to rip the rearview mirror off and go forward. It's what can we do right now."

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