Zook warns: One game will not make the season

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Online Poster

By Derek Barichello

As nice as it would be for the Illini to win their home opener against Rutgers on Saturday Sept. 3, head coach Ron Zook believes it will not make or break the season.

“It’s important that we get off on the right foot,” Zook said in his first weekly news conference of the season on Tuesday, “but I’m not going to tell our football team, ‘Hey, we have to win this game, it’s all or nothing.'”

Instead, Saturday’s game will be more about gauging where the team is after a long summer of practice.

“Until you line up and play, it is hard to simulate game conditions,” Zook said. “I tried to expose them to everything we could.”

Although the team will ultimately be measured by its record, Zook said he will measure the team early on in the season by improvements from game to game.

“Any game, any season, there is adversity,” Zook said. “We need to stay positive and believe. The good teams learn to handle that and we want to develop that here.”

Zook’s hope is to make Illinois one of those good teams, but he has a long way to go. They have finished among the bottom of the Big Ten standings in the last two seasons and have managed only four wins over the past two years.

So far, he has already lept the first hurdle – getting the players to believe.

“It’s taken awhile to trust Coach,” Maddox said. “We trust his schemes and more players have bought into it.”

With Zook’s new playbook on offense and his aggressive defense, the Illini players are not only believing, they think they could be a surprise team.

“I think this team can be a lot better than a lot of people think,” said defensive tackle Ryan Matha. “This is the best defense since I’ve been here, and that includes 2001.”

Let’s Get It On

After practicing with each other all summer, the team is chomping at the bit to play against other competition.

“We’ve been practicing for almost a month and it gets kind of tiring beating up on the same person every day,” Maddox said. “Now we have a chance to beat up on some other people.”

Keep Up, If You Can

At Tuesday’s press conference, Matha compared Zook’s no-huddle spread offense to the one Northwestern runs.

“Our pace is so much faster than theirs. The refs are going to have to slow those guys down.”

“Defensively, teams are not ready for this offense. It’s tough. I know Coach Zook has said, ‘I want my offense to run the kind of stuff that drives me crazy.’ That offense is a pain.”

First Game Jitters

Everyone gets them. Even Coach Zook.

“I love to compete,” Zook said. “I love to play games. I think that’s why we’re in the profession. I’m excited, I’m looking forward to it, I have butterflies, but that’s how most coaches are.”

“The players have a few nerves themselves. A lot of nerves, right down to the coaches.”

12 and Under Only

The Illini believe the most important thing to having a successful season is minimizing mistakes.

“Our margin of error is 12 percent,” Maddox said. “Coach Locksley said if we keep that margin under 12 percent. He said he hasn’t been at too many games where a team has lost. No turnovers, sacks, or penalties.”

Quote of the Day

“They’ve gotten off the yellow bus and onto the big bus.”

– Coach Zook on the direction Rutgers program has been moving in, winning four games last year and defeating Michigan State in its opener.