Monday was Terry Hawthorne day at Illinois football practice. No matter whom the media interviewed, the discussion always came back to the great play Hawthorne made to stop Michigan receiver Roy Roundtree on the one yard line.
The subsequent goal line stand gave the Illini offense the energy and motivation to score three straight times and pull away to a decisive victory. Illini players all credited Hawthorne for the play of the game.
"Ups to Terry Hawthorne," defensive tackle Corey Liuget declared. "If he hadn't done that, we wouldn't have had the goal line stop. We just told ourselves to keep our heads up and keep playing. That's what we did, and we stopped them. We just said these guys are not gonna get in the endzone."
"We all knew how fast Terry is, and now everybody else knows," defensive tackle Josh Brent added. "He's extremely fast. He's one of the fastest if not the fastest guys on our team."
Offensive players were equally inspired. Quarterback Juice Williams spoke eloquently on Hawthorne's behalf.
"You can use that play so many ways. Recruiting, motivation for the team, an example of selling out for the team. That was a great play by Terry. That stop at the goal line by the defense and that hustle play really got the thing turned around. That's probably the first play they'll show on the highlight film.
"That gave the offense momentum. I said on the sideline, 'We've got to pay the defense back for plays like that, standing up at the one inch yard line.' And I think we responded correctly, taking it 99 yards for the touchdown."
Left tackle Jeff Allen shared similar thoughts.
"By him making that play, it turned the game around. And then we got that goal line stand. The first thing that popped in my mind was, 'We've got to take this 99 yards for the defense.' So we could take the lead because they were playing with fire now. If we take the lead, they will continue to play with fire."
Williams said it not only turned around the outcome of the game, it may have reversed the direction of the entire season.
"It very well could be. That one play by Terry obviously got the momentum changed for us. That could really dictate the rest of the season. Offensively we produced, defensively they stopped those guys. It can transition to the next game, and this can transition to next season. We'll see where it takes us."
That defensive stand and the offensive explosion that followed gave everyone a big boost of needed confidence.
"It felt great walking into the locker room, knowing we can hold our heads up high, that we beat Michigan," Liuget remembered. "We're just trying to keep moving forward."
Williams appreciated the efficiency with which the Illini offense played the second half. That memory can help them in future games.
"Yeah, anytime you don't shoot yourself in the foot, you put yourself in position to win. That's exactly what we did. We had few penalties, we had no turnovers and no interceptions. I think we had four sacks, and we'll try to get that down."
Allen offered a perceptive and somewhat surprising analysis of the second half offense. One would think the players would know they were playing better in the third quarter, but he said it wasn't until later that he realized how much more aggressive he and the other linemen had become. And the cause is uncertain.
"We were just clicking on all cylinders. When I looked at the game, it looked like we were playing much tougher. Even myself, I looked at the film. Maybe it was because my opponent was talking so much, it just sparked something. I noticed it as I watched the film. We were getting after each other after the play.
"There was nothing different that we did at halftime. We did the same things we did the first half. It's just in the second half we executed better. We just did what the coach told us to do."
Needless to say, the entire team had more bounce to its step at practices this week according to Illinois coach Ron Zook.
"Oh yeah. Everybody needed that. Now we've got to build on that."
Brent definitely enjoyed the practices better this week.
"You always want to come in inspired on Monday after a win. Things are gonna be a little easier in the sense that you're more motivated than you would coming off a loss when you're more melancholy coming to practice.
"The season hasn't gone the way we wanted it to, so every week we reevaluate our goals and create a new optimism for the season.
"We knew it was there. We knew what we are capable of. We're just glad everybody finally played to their ability. Some things went our way this game finally. It wasn't so much where has it been but appreciative that everybody was executing the way they were."
Allen says this week's practices haven't changed, but there is definitely a boost of confidence among the players.
"I wouldn't say practice is different. We're doing the same things this week we were doing the previous weeks. I can't say practice was an issue with us losing because we're doing the same things.
"Confidence definitely gives us a boost. We had that sick feeling in the bottom of our stomachs. It's no fun losing. We haven't got that taste out of our mouths."
The much maligned offensive line took solace from the 377 rushing yards put up by the Illini Saturday according to Allen.
"Yeah, that's a confidence boost. When we gain that many yards on the ground, it seems we're a good offensive line. It showed that to us as well. We've just got to carry that on for the rest of the season."
Zook felt the team needed to celebrate the win, to keep the positive memories fresh in the mind.
"I think the one thing that I wanted them to do until we went on the field is that I wanted them to enjoy what happened. I think sometimes what happens after a win is that you put it away so early and you're on to the next game that you don't really get to enjoy it.
"I think this was something that we needed to do. There were no residual effects after practice, and our schedule is the same. They kind of know the schedule, and I was happy with the way we prepared."
Now the question is, can the Illini sustain the effort in the remaining four games? Can they utilize those positive memories constructively to build a quality finale to their season? Brent believes so.
"Definitely. It's fresh in your memory how to win. In the past couple games before this, the pressure was on how we were losing. It's definitely a lot easier because you remember the things that you did that were successful. And you focus and correct the things in practice that you could have done better."