Revenge, momentum propel Illini

By Courtnet Linehan

One win does not a season make.

That’s the theme Illinois football head coach Ron Zook has emphasized since his Illini topped Rutgers in overtime six days ago. Whether Illini fans – or players – are listening has yet to be seen.

Illinois plays San Jose State tomorrow in a rematch of a 2002 upset. Three years ago, San Jose State topped Illinois 38-35 at Memorial Stadium, and the Illini have not forgotten.

“I know those guys are going to come tough,” said Illinois running back Pierre Thomas. “They’re going to come take it to us. A couple years ago when we played them San Jose beat us, so we can’t take them lightly.”

The Illini have buried that game deep in their memory, and now three seasons later both teams have different looks to them. Both have new head coaches. Both have different rosters. And both are looking to rebound after poor previous seasons.

Illinois put up a 3-8 overall record in 2004, while San Jose State went 2-9. The matchup is fairly even.

But the Illini now have Ron Zook at the helm, and while he’s not promising anything special, he insists his team is better than either fans or players think.

Zook said his Illini are prepared for the Spartans to bring surprises and speed.

“As a coach, you’re always concerned about the unknown,” Zook said. “You put a defense on the board and think, ‘well gosh, if they do this, will we be ok…’ Sometimes you talk yourself out of things.

“They’ve got tricks in their bag too, and as a defense we have to be prepared for that kind of stuff just like hopefully they do us.”

Offensively, Zook said the team has upped the tempo in practice. He said this helps prepare players for game day, when they will have more time to think before making key decisions.

“That’s why we’re pushing them, we’re constantly forcing them to think in practice, because that’s what they’re going to have to do in a game,” Zook said.

Illini players are not assuming that one win leads directly to another. Thomas said the team got a confidence boost from the Rutgers victory, but that it hasn’t made the players lose focus.

“I believe every team has a lot of confidence when they have one victory under their belt,” Thomas said. “They want to keep that momentum going, that drives a lot of fans to come and that support gives us more confidence to play well.”

Zook looks at the win as a reward and an incentive. He said he hopes players got a taste of what is to come, but that the coaching staff is working them as hard as ever.

“I think the things we’ve been preaching and pushing and striving to get, we were fortunate to get on Saturday,” Zook said. “They have to understand that everything we do is for a reason.”

While the Illini were notching their first victory of the season, San Jose State was topping Eastern Washington. Thomas said the Illini know the Spartans are as pumped after their victory as the Illini were about its.

“We both had a good game, close game to start our season, and we’re both hyped to play against each other,” Thomas said. “We’re both looking for a victory. It’s really tough to tell, we’re both coming out looking for a victory. We’re coming hard, and I know they’re coming hard.”