Illini learn from loss

By Derek Barichello

At Tuesday’s press conference, the Illini talked about what it takes to pull off an upset.

Against No. 13 California, the Illini were half way there. They led 17-7 at halftime, before giving up 21 points in the fourth quarter, falling 35-20.

With No. 17 Michigan State looming, the story this week will be the same as it was last week heading into the game.

The Spartans are undefeated, with the fourth best offense in the nation, and heavy favorites to win after they beat No. 16 Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

Except this time around the Illini feel they are better tooled for the upset.

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“Knowing that we can play that well against Cal, we feel like we can play with anybody,” said defensive tackle Ryan Matha.

Matha said it was not until the mindset changed in the second half against California that the Illini started to go south.

“People’s minds got tired,” he said. “Guys started worrying about not losing the game, instead of just going out there and playing like we did in the first half with nothing to lose. You can’t afford to have mental breakdowns against teams as good as Cal.”

Time of possession was another factor. In the second half, the Illini held onto the ball for only 13:10, after holding onto it for more than 21 minutes in the first half.

Head coach Ron Zook said ball control will be the key to Saturday’s game, which starts with slowing down the running game.

Last Saturday, the Illini gave up 299 yards on the ground, with Bears running back Justin Forsett rushing for 130 yards alone in the second half.

“We need to try to keep the ball out of their hands as much as we can,” Zook said. “We need to slow down the running game. We’re not going to stop it, but we need to slow it down. If that gets going, it will be a long afternoon.”

Zook said another key is turnovers, the Illini caused two fumbles but were unable to recover them.

“We’re trying to rip the ball out every snap,” Zook said. “Turnovers go in cycles. You are not getting them, then bam! We’ve talked to our secondary and told them to expect the ball to be in their hands.”

After tasting what it was like to win with a 2-0 start, the Illini are anxious to get rid of the losing taste.

“We still got that chip on our shoulder, that bad taste in our mouth,” Matha said. “Hopefully, we can get that all corrected this weekend.”

The Trojan Horse

Going into this Saturday’s matchup, the Illini feel they already have an advantage.

Illinois running backs’ coach Reggie Mitchell knows Michigan State well, he coached them from 1999-2004 before joining the Illini this season.

Running back Jason Davis said Mitchell has not been shy to tell the Illini what he knows.

“He’s not going to hold anything in,” Davis said. “It’s a big week for him. He can give us a heads up on ways to attack certain guys’ tendencies. He can tell us the guys who like contact and guys who don’t like contact. Things like that.”

“Not So” Special Teams

In the loss to California, the Illini gave up its second return for a touchdown in as many weeks causing Zook to be concerned about his special teams.

“I’m not very excited about it,” Zook said. “We cannot allow things like that to happen, especially when we have three or four guys in position to make the play.”

Zook said the coaching staff will be looking this week for players who can get the job done.

“That’s the frustrating thing; the three blunders we’ve had, we’ve not been outschemed, we just haven’t executed,” he said. “It’s not easy to correct, but there are things that are correctible.”

Zook said part of the battle is getting the team to buy into how important special teams are in the game.

“We need to perturb that attitude, because it’s not lesser, particularly in games that you need all your ammo,” Zook said. “When you look back at it, there were two clips that are usually called, but that’s part of the game, when you go on the road, you’ve got to be better than that. There’s also two or three tackles you’ve got to make, but we’re working on it as hard as we can.”

Injury Report

The Illini had another fortunate week on Saturday, reporting no new injuries.

Offensive lineman Jim Labonte and wide receiver Derrick McPhearson returned from their injuries in the California game, and Zook said he expects to get them more playing time this week.

Zook said he does not expect defensive back Justin Harrison to play Saturday for precautionary reasons, but Harrison has returned to practice.