Illini heading into weekend fresh

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Online Poster

By Derek Barichello

After Ron Zook addressed the media on Tuesday, it might be easy to confuse his 2-4 team with the 6-1 Penn State team that will visit Champaign on Saturday.

Aside from the two victories at home to start the season, nothing has gone right for the Illini, with a 36-13 loss on Oct. 8 at Indiana marking their latest shortcoming.

Yet as frustrating of a season as it has been, Zook was just as upbeat on Tuesday as he was when he was hired.

“I got more energy than they got,” Zook said. “We are going to keep on keeping on. I’m going to continue to push them to play with a lot of energy.”

Safety Kevin Mitchell said the young Illini feed off their coach’s intensity.

“His energy level is great,” Mitchell said. “He points out things that we need to see. His spirits bring out the best in this team.”

With the bye week last week, Zook said he was able to evaluate his team’s situation.

And despite the lack of results, he believes the Illini are still on the right track.

“I am encouraged,” Zook said. “We’re not as far away as it seems. Now that we’ve played some teams, it seems like we can get to where we want to get to faster than you think.”

That positive attitude has trickled down to the players, who continue to repeat their coach like a broken record.

“Coach points out a play here or a play there,” Mitchell said. “A young football team makes those mistakes. If we eliminate those mistakes, it shows we have a chance to get these big wins.”

The bye week could not have come at a better time for the team.

“We got a chance to get some rest on Thursday and Friday which I thought was very important, particularly for a young group of guys,” Zook said. “They had hit the wall a little bit. It seemed like they were refreshed and excited about practice last night.”

Offensive lineman JJ Simmons said he used the off week to watch some college football.

“It reminded me of how fun it is,” Simmons said. “That Minnesota-Wisconsin game was crazy. It goes to show anything can happen in the Big Ten. I was in shock; I love it.”

Staying Busy

While the team relaxed over the weekend, with most of the guys going home, Zook stayed busy.

“It gave us the chance to go out on the road to do some recruiting,” Zook said. “We cleaned up some areas that were a little further away that we couldn’t get to, so I thought that went extremely well.”

National Spotlight

Saturday’s homecoming game against No. 12 Penn State will be nationally televised on ESPN2, and the Illini are seeing it as motivation to change the nation’s perception of Illinois football.

“If we can’t get up for this,” Mitchell said. “Something is really wrong with us.”

Competing with the Sox

On Saturday, the Illini get an opportunity to play on national television, but just how many people will see the game?

The Illini will be competing for attention with the White Sox and possibly the Cardinals, as Game One of the World Series is scheduled to begin on Saturday night.

“I’m worried about one game right now,” Zook said. “As I’m sure White Sox fans are worried about one game right now also.”

Flashback

Penn State leads the all-time series against the Illini 10-2, but over the years the two teams have locked horns in a couple of classic bouts.

In 1994, Joe Paterno and the gang came to Memorial Stadium ranked No. 2 in the nation when unranked Illinois gave them all they could handle.

The Illini did not trail until the final minute of a 35-31 loss to the eventual national champion.

In that game, the Illini jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, before the Nittany Lions closed the gap at halftime, making it a 28-14 game.

Led by former Bengals running back Ki-Jana Carter and current Raiders quarterback Kerry Collins, the Nittany Lions scored three touchdowns in the second half, including the final score – a touchdown with 57 seconds left to win the game.

In 2001, the Illini got revenge. On their way to the Sugar Bowl, the Illini came back from a 21-7 deficit led by current Bears quarterback Kurt Kittner, giving the Illini a 27-21 lead.

The lead did not stand for long, as the Nittany Lions returned the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown to take a 28-27 lead.

Kittner and the Illini got the final say in the game with two completions to current 49ers wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and current Colts wide receiver Aaron Moorehead to set up a 13-yard game winning touchdown by running back Rocky Harvey.