Illinois still believes, hopeful despite losses

By Derek Barichello

After two lopsided losses, head coach Ron Zook said the Illini continue to make progress.

“Believe it or not, we did make progress,” he said at Tuesday’s press conference. “We’re not as far away as most people think; most of you are probably chuckling.”

Zook said he watched the film from the Iowa game and showed the team nine plays on defense that were the difference between winning and losing.

“If you take them out, it’s a different ballgame,” he said. “If we go into the locker room up 16-14, like we could have conceivably been, then they are the ones saying ‘oh gosh,’ and the mental part goes onto their side, instead of ours.”

The good news, Zook said, was that each mistake could be fixed.

“One of them we should have played deeper in a cover three, and one was not wrapping a guy up on the tackle,” safety Kyle Kleckner said. “This is stuff we do that cannot come up in games.”

Zook did not stop there. He let the offense know that it can improve as well.

Going into halftime, the Illini offense had outgained the Hawkeyes, but went into the locker room scoreless: missing three field goal opportunities, throwing an interception in the red zone and dropping two passes in the endzone.

“We have no reason to have low confidence,” offensive lineman Matt Maddox said. “The game film showed how close we were. We had drops in the endzone, and we were not protecting long enough. The game could have been closer.”

With all that said, the Illini still have the worst run defense in the Big Ten to improve upon. They gave up 232 yards rushing on average and last Saturday allowed 301 yards on the ground and 476 overall against Iowa.

Zook said he will continue to look at improving the Illini’s personnel on defense.

“We’re still looking for the right linebacker combo,” Zook said. “In the secondary, we are going to play all those guys. The secondary needs to play like they are capable of playing. We’re not in a position to scheme.”

With a win in Indiana this Saturday, a team the Illini has beat five of their last six tries, they will be 3-3 heading into their bye week.

“It’s important to win heading into our bye weekend,” Maddox said. “Coach Zook told us five more days until the bye, if we take care of him in these next five days, he’ll take care of us next week.”

Hard-nosed Football

Kleckner received 30 stitches in six different spots on his face after getting a facemask to the nose last Saturday.

“I was dazed,” Kleckner said. “I knew it was bad. I couldn’t see, there was blood in my eyes. The tip of my nose was hanging off.”

The thought of smashmouth football got Zook a little giddy.

“Here is a guy who looks like he was in a barroom brawl,” he said. “If you look back, he competed. He fought and that’s why we played him. He showed me that he could do that, so I’m going to expect him to play like that all the time. He’s a warrior.”

Kleckner’s teammates have been teasing him about his face.

“It looks like he went from Rocky I through V,” Maddox said.

Illini Injury Report

Zook said offensive lineman J.J. Simmons is questionable for Saturday’s game. He said Simmons practiced with the team on Monday.

Zook said he expects defensive back Morris Virgil to play against Indiana after sitting out against Iowa with a hurt shoulder.