Inexperience, lack of depth hurting Illini

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Online Poster

By Derek Barichello

Still hurting after a 63-10 loss to No. 11 Penn State, the Illini changed their tone on Tuesday. Wait until next year. Or the year after. But soon.

The Illini, who are the youngest team in the nation with 12 underclassmen starting, have fallen in five straight games after a 2-0 start.

Ron Zook said the coaching staff is doing all it can to save this season, but with inexperience and a lack of depth, the Illini’s problem cannot be fixed overnight.

“I’m tired of losing,” Zook said. “We can’t fix it either. But we’re going to fix it. We’re slowly making progress. It’s just not as fast as you want it to be.”

Despite the frustration, Zook said the Illini will not make any changes to its scheme.

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“You have to just stay the course,” Zook said. “The worst thing we could do is start making dramatic changes. I told them Monday night, if there was one offense or one defense that is the best, everybody in the country would be doing it. What we do works.”

The problem is that it takes time. Zook said it will get easier year after year.

“It takes a year,” Zook said. “It does. Even at the place I was at for five years, it took a while to get everyone on the same page.”

To get everyone on the same page and keep them positive, the team did not watch any game film from last Saturday.

Instead, the team talked about refocusing.

Senior defensive lineman Ryan Matha said it will take one play at a time.

“There are four games left, ‘are we going to win them all?’ Not very likely,” Matha said. “So we have to break it down. Just think of the first play, ‘can I beat that guy?’ Our defensive line thinks so. Then after that, ‘can we win the next one?'”

Matha said the team knows it can be successful because the plays they make all week in practice are the ones that they are not executing in the games.

“I don’t know if the guys are too nervous or too excited,” Matha said. “We’re missing plays we make all week. We need to get that situated.”

Matha said the rebuilding process has been aggravating, especially for the seniors, who will not be around to see the program if it turns the corner.

“It’s tough for us,” Matha said. “This isn’t the way to go out. At least for me and the fifth year guys, we were here in 2001. For the guys like Jason Davis who weren’t around for that, it’s that much tougher.”

But they do not want to go out without a fight.

“There are 11 guys that will line up on each side of the ball, and you never know what can happen,” Matha said. “For myself, I only have four games of college football left. There is no sense in sulking.”

Matha said the seniors will always be a part of the Illinois football family and will enjoy coming back when the team is successful.

“Three years from now, I’ll be coming back to Big Ten Championships and January bowl bids,” Matha said. “Coach Zook is a proven recruiter. It’s not an overnight deal. It will happen sooner than later.”

If anything, Zook’s determination will keep the Illini on track. He has managed to stay upbeat and positive throughout the losing streak.

“We’re going to do it. People get negative because it’s easy to get negative,” Zook said. “Just like if you can’t fix it, you get frustrated because your fans want your program to do well. It’s easy to just get negative. As coaches, we’re the same way.”

And even though he is pleading for fans to give him some time to turn around the program, he said he is still expecting his team to come away with a win every Saturday.

“I said two weeks ago, we’re going to win this game,” Zook said. “And if we don’t, we’re going to win the next one. That’s how I feel. We’re going to do it.”

Brasic still the man

Zook said Tim Brasic will still be the starter. Despite a poor showing last Saturday that got him benched in the second half, Zook said Brasic is still the Illini’s best option.

“I was pleased with the way he came out in practice,” Zook said. “I watched closely when I took him out to see how he reacted. He stayed sharp and positive.”

Hurtin’ Illini

Defensive back James Cooper, who strained a muscle in his foot, is probable and expected to return to practice… Offensive lineman Martin O’Donnell is questionable, and Zook is hopeful of having him ready for Saturday… The Illini are waiting for the MRI results on defensive lineman Xavier Fulton. The Illini anticipate he’ll miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL.