Fresno State Difficult Foe On Senior Day

The Fighting Illini will say goodbye to a special group of seniors Saturday against Fresno State in Memorial Stadium. The season finale should be a memorable one as Fresno State is already bowl eligible and confident of victory. Preseason expectations for the Illini were extremely high. Now, they just hope to play well and get out with a victory for the seniors.

The Illinois football team has faced a rigorous schedule this year. It was top loaded with Missouri, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State early, and it is concluding with national power Cincinnati and a strong Fresno State group. Illini coach Ron Zook knows the Bulldogs will be a formidable opponent.

"Obviously it's going to be a heck of a football game. Fresno State is a good football team, a very well coached football team. I know Pat Hill pretty well. He's a tough guy. Their players are tough guys.

"I've known a lot of people that have coached with him when he was in the NFL. In fact, I think he coached with Coach (Kirk) Ferentz as well. If you look at the coaching turnover he's had, every year he gets a new coordinator and just keeps winning and doing things.

"I can remember when they first started the motto, 'Anyplace, anywhere, anytime.' That was kind of what he made famous. They didn't care where they went. They would go to big schools, little schools. They didn't care. Those guys kind of bought into that, and that's kind of how they are.

"They're a very well-coached football team. Basically they're all from California. I think they have two guys from Arizona and a guy from Vegas. That's the thing - they're all from that part of the country. They're going to come here and it's going to be a battle. Our guys understand that. We have to be ready to play."

Illini fans hoping the cold December weather will be a detriment to FSU are mistaken.

"People say that it's going to be cold and don't know what the weather is going to be like. Those guys don't care about the cold weather. Trust me, they're going to come in here ready to play."

Fresno State boasts a potent offense with talent everywhere.

"They have one of the top rushing programs in the country," Zook reminds. "Their tailback is leading the nation in rushing. Their quarterback is kind of an unsung hero, an unbelievable player. I think the way he manages the game and handles the game is exceptional. The receiving core is big, strong, fast and physical and they do a great job."

The running back in question is junior Ryan Mathews (5'-11", 200). He leads the nation in rushing yards with 149.1 yards per game. The overall ground game ranks seventh in the country. Backup Lonyae Miller, a 5'-11", 220 pound senior, has blazing speed.

"They're comparable to a team like Wisconsin," Zook explains. "They're going to come in there and they're going to ram the ball down your throat. A team like Iowa last year, they're physical and tough.

"Their running back didn't play in the last game, he had a concussion, but they had the open day last week. There's a reason why he leads the nation."

The senior receiver trio of Seyi Ajirotutu (6'-4", 210), Marlon Moore (6'-1", 190) and Chastin West (6'-1", 215) have combined for 4100 yards and 26 touchdowns in their careers. Ajirotutu alone has over 1900 receiving yards.

Ryan Colburn, a 6'-3", 220 pound junior, is the quarterback to whom Zook referred. Colburn is currently 27th nationally in pass efficiency. He threw four touchdown passes in their two overtime loss to the Badgers in Wisconsin.

Special teams are truly special under Pat Hill according to Zook.

"Special teams, the only reason that their kickoff returner is not leading the nation this year is because no one will kick to him. The previous two years he led the nation in kick returns. Their field goal kicker (Kevin Goessling) is 14 out of 14."

Senior cornerback A.J. Jefferson (6'-0", 190) is the #3 active leader in NCAA career kickoff return yardage at 29.48 per game. His backup West doubles as an outstanding punt returner. He has returned both kickoffs and punts for touchdowns.

In addition, Hill's Bulldogs are experts at blocking kicks. Since 1997, FSU has scored 39 touchdowns on special teams and recorded three safeties. They have been best in the nation in kick blocks for the last 8 years. Given the Illini's occasional special teams lapses, expect at least one block Saturday.

Zook is just as quick to praise the Bulldogs' defense.

"Defensively, they'll just try and maul you. They're an over and under team, a lot of cover. Not a big blitz team, they're just going to play hard and chase the football. They're going to try to create turnovers.

"They're not going to give up many big plays. They're going to keep the ball in front of them and try to knock you out. That's how they play. They're a tough, physical group of guys."

Illinois wants to send the seniors out on a winning note, but it won't be easy. Most of the tickets sold won't be used, leaving them little in the way of crowd support. And their loss to Cincinnati last week, after two weeks of preparation, works against them as well.

Fresno already is bowl eligible, but their bowl possibilities are greater with 8 wins than 7. Zook knows they won't take the Illini for granted.

"It was last year or the year before when they took Southern California right to the wire. They'll come in and they'll be ready to go."

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