The Illinois Fighting Illini have had a tough year.

Injuries, close losses, turnovers and a porous run defense have left them wondering about their season, and this year they finish up with us - the Northwestern Wildcats - playing for .500 and maybe a bowl bid..."> The Illinois Fighting Illini have had a tough year.

Injuries, close losses, turnovers and a porous run defense have left them wondering about their season, and this year they finish up with us - the Northwestern Wildcats - playing for .500 and maybe a bowl bid...">

Playing for Pride

The flap over the "Chief" not withstanding...<br> The Illinois <b>Fighting Illini</b> have had a tough year.<br><br> Injuries, close losses, turnovers and a porous run defense have left them wondering about their season, and this year they finish up with us - the <b>Northwestern Wildcats</b> - playing for .500 and maybe a bowl bid...

Lots of negative talk about the Fighting Illini, who are suffering a down season. The big story down in Champaign this year has been injuries to key players.

The good news for the Orange Guys is that they've had a bye week to rest up. The bad news?

OK, all we're hearing from the Illini is how injuries ruined their season...

Illinois Coach Ron Turner gets a couple of key offensive players back for the game with the Wildcats.
We're coming off a bye week and it gave us an opportunity to do a couple of things, heal up physically...we got a lot of guys who were playing but were really banged up...they're probably in the best shape they've been in a long time. [Ron Turner - Big 10 Teleconference]
Tailback E.B. Halsey and WR Kelvin Hayden will be back in the lineup, trying to pump up the 13.1 points per game average. A true frosh, Halsey is averaging 59.3 yards per game rushing and 32.1 yds receiving per game. Hayden's return should be a big help for QB Dustin Ward too.

But the man to watch down field is a converted QB - Mark Kornfeld - he's their go-to guy averaging 12 yards a catch and a 66% first down conversion percentage. 15 different players have caught passes, 7 for TDs.

The Defense is also welcoming back a few of their walking wounded. They've been playing OK, but they aren't bragging about their averages these days. The Illini are 10th in scoring defense this year allowing 32.8 points a game and Turner doesn't take the Cats lightly:

[Getting ready for the Cats] is tough because they do everything so well. They get on the line and they check most of the stuff to see what you're in and they've got a really good running game -- Jason Wright is a very good player, and explosive back so they can run the ball.

The Quarterback [Bret Basanez] can hurt you with his speed...[and they've got] a lot of talented receivers, so you can't really focus on one thing...you just have to mix up what you're doing and keep them off balance a little bit.

You gotta do a good job and stop the run.

The Special Teams star is punter Steve Weatherford -- he's been averaging 45 yards a kick lately. He's 2nd in the Big 10 and 10th in the NCAA with a 44.5 average for the season.

Places that Turner sees a need for improvement?

It begins with stopping the run. We did not do a good job in stopping the run. We had an opportunity early in the year to win some close games and we didn't get it done.

It starts with stop the run, I think turnover ratio/turnover margin is crucial. That's the name of the game in College football.

The Bye week was used by the Illini to heal up and work a few fundamentals, and not to get ready for the Wildcats...
We did a little bit on Northwestern but mostly we were focusing on ourselves.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats are expecting a few important offensive players back after the loss to Michigan. WR's Roger Jordan and Mark Philmore are expected to be dressed and available, RB Jason Wright has been playing through his ankle sprain, and Terrell Jordan is also reported to be ready to go.

In any case, the team doesn't seem to be down after losing to Michigan

I know this, we walked off the field ...with no regret...They [Michigan] are a great football team. -- [Randy Walker - Big 10 Teleconference]
The Defense seems to be playing up and down -- as always, we've been leaky against the pass, and that could be a problem with the return of those offensive players for the Illini. This could be taken as their final exam -- and give us all a taste of how well they'll play next year.

Turner compared this defensive unit to last year;

[They're] tough, they're a different team, a lot of the same players, but those players have grown up.

They stayed healthy, stayed together, they're much more physical, get off blocks a lot better, and where I really see they've improved the most is tackling -- they are very good tacklers. Excellent hitters out of the secondary, the linebackers attack -- excellent tacklers at that position and the defensive line, they do a lot better job of getting off blocks.

They're a much improved defensive football team.

Soph DE Barry Cofield, a 2 year starter, summed it up by saying that the Defense has come a long way, but has a long way to go. I don't think anyone will dispute that.

A couple of blowouts have messed up NU's scoring statistics -- we're allowing 25.3 points a game but we're still maintaining a decent rush defense number, especially compared to last year.

One more wrinkle in the plans -- its Senior Day for the Illini, with 21 Illinois seniors planning to go out a winner. Included are the two QBs - the injured Jon Beutjer and local boy QB Dustin Ward. Ward's career best game was against NU - in 2000 where he ran up 246 yards.

NU should be ready to add to its 178 yard per game average rushing against the Illini this Saturday. They've averaged 203 yards per game allowed. Jason Wright needs 100 yards to make it a 1,000 yard season -- if he's not too banged up he should get that.

The best thing that can happen for NU is that the Wright/Herron/Jordan tandem rushes for 200-250 yards. The worse thing would be a couple of long quick TDs from the Illini and a 150 yard game on the ground for Halsey.

How important is this game? Ron Turner, is this Illinois' Bowl game?

There is a lot to play for -- obviously Pride -- the Sweet Sioux tomahawk is very important to us, we've had it here for 2 years, its something tangible for us to play for...and obviously the Seniors, a chance to go out of here with a win.
And NU Coach Randy Walker:
"Its a great rivalry, and both teams will be excited about playing and it should be a great ball game.
The game is on Channel 2 in Chicago starting at 11:00 AM Central.
Everywhere else its on WGN's Web Site with Dave Eanet and Ted Albrecht or you can listen to the game on WNUR.
Of course the Purple Reign Free Chat room will be open - starting about 10:45
 
[Quotes are all from the Big 10 Teleconference last Tuesday]

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