Illini Feeling Like the Target

Illinois is coming off a big win, but they know that Minnesota is hoping to continue its momentum as well.

In the minutes after last week's startling 25-point victory at Michigan, more than one player for Illinois suggested that it could serve as the game to catapult the team toward last year's glory. For example: "This is one of those wins that could really tell the season for us," senior middle linebacker Brit Miller said in the Daily Herald. "This could start us off. You always look for that big win early."

That intriguing statement can be spun a number of ways as Illinois prepares to host Minnesota for its 98th homecoming on Saturday.

Illinois coach Ron Zook, for example, fears that Minnesota sees Illinois as "that big win" that could accelerate the Gophers' own transformation. Lots of pundits have pegged Minnesota as this year's Illinois, seeing as how the Gophers have flipped from 1-11 to 5-1. However, Tim Brewster's bunch has yet to beat a team with a .500 record. The Illini — Brewster's alma mater — might be the ultimate target for the Gophers.

"This is a good, good football team, a much-improved football team," Zook said. "They're doing very, very similar things to what we did last year. They're playing with unbelievable emotion. The coaches are running up and down the sideline with unbelievable emotion...they can move the ball against anybody in the country. All you've got to do is watch the Ohio State game."

On the other hand, Illinois replenished its deep well of confidence with its 45-20 victory at The Big House. Zook just hopes the well doesn't runneth over because of that game — and because the Illini piled up 44 points and 655 total yards when they thrashed the Gophers last year.


  • All of Illinois' starters came through the Michigan game without any problems. Special teamers Ian Thomas and Nate Bussey took hits that could affect their roles Saturday against Minnesota.

  • WR Jeff Cumberland is close to regaining the starter's role he earned toward the end of last season, which included a four-catch, 53-yard, one-touchdown performance last November against Minnesota.

    SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Illinois' offense hit its stride at Michigan last week. With big Jeff Cumberland getting more snaps at split end (he has been slow to recover from a stress fracture in his foot), that gives the Illini a fourth home-run threat to go with Juice Williams, Dan Dufrene and Arrelious Benn. And if anyone wondered whether Dufrene — Rashard Mendenhall's successor — was a true game-breaker, check out how his 4.4 speed turned a screen pass into a 57-yard touchdown pass against Michigan.

    SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Just like the offense, Illinois' defense is making big strides now that some sidelined players are joining the fray. Junior-college transfer Donsay Hardeman, a big hitter who made his Division I debut against Penn State on Sept. 27, solidifies the safety spot. Meanwhile, defensive tackle Josh Brent made his first start against Michigan, and his combination of power and speed clogs the middle and allows teammates to make plays.


    QB Juice Williams — The Big Ten's reigning Offensive Player of the Week shredded Minnesota last November for 340 total yards, a powerful performance that boosted his confidence and helped him shock Ohio State the following week. Williams must continue to throw as he did last week against Michigan: taking his shots when guys are open, but willingly throwing the ball out of bounds when nothing's available.

    MLB Brit Miller — The Big Ten's reigning Defensive Player of the Week leads the nation in tackles for loss with 2.3 per game. He's taking advantage of a defensive line that holds its ground to fly into the backfield and make big plays.

    WR Arrelious Benn — The sophomore standout has posted back-to-back 100-yard receiving games. He's getting more room to make plays because SE Jeff Cumberland, TE Michael Hoomanawanui and RB Dan Dufrene have developed into legitimate threats in the passing game.

    THIS WEEK'S GAME: Minnesota at Illinois, Oct. 11 — It's Homecoming week in Champaign-Urbana, which is awfully convenient for Minnesota coach Tim Brewster because he's an Illinois alum. Brewster badly wanted the job that went to Ron Zook in December 2004. Now that he's in charge of a Big Ten franchise with a similar football history, Brewster has his Gophers on the same upward path that Zook took the Illini on last year.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "Minnesota will come in here with a chip on its shoulder. Minnesota will come in here with something to prove." — Illinois coach Ron Zook, who's sure the Gophers remember last year's 44-17 loss that featured 655 total yards by the Illini.

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