Illini look to future

By Derek Barichello

Illinois’ last two games of the season might as well be the first two games of next season.

The Illini will travel to Purdue this Saturday and finish their season at home against Northwestern on Nov. 19.

Head coach Ron Zook said the team met on Monday to make new team goals for the remaining games.

Because the Illini are the youngest team in the nation, returning all but two starters from a year ago, a victory against either Purdue or Northwestern will not do much in the Big Ten standings, but could give the team a boost heading into next year.

“A win would definitely build that confidence level,” safety Kevin Mitchell said. “A win against any good conference team would bring it back.”

A win is especially important because the team does not have many positive results to show, losing each Big Ten game by lopsided scores; 61-14, 35-7, 36-13, 63-10, 41-24 and 40-2.

“It’s hard to see the improvement since we continue to go against good football teams,” Zook said. “I have to look at how far we’ve come since the day I got here.”

The Illini have played three consecutive ranked opponents and will meet two formerly ranked opponents to finish the season.

Zook understands with the strength of the schedule, results might not come.

“We just have to draw enthusiasm from knowing we are doing the right things,” Zook said. “It is not happening as fast as I want it, or the fans want it, but there are two things you can’t buy. You can’t buy experience, and you can’t buy time.”

But with no results to lead them in the right direction, Mitchell said the players have depended on the coaching staff to keep them positive.

“They’ve been through this all before, and we buy into what they are saying,” Mitchell said.

Offensive lineman JJ Simmons said he draws his confidence from breaking the game down to individual plays. He said if he is able to make a successful block, he can draw from that.

“There are individual battles every play that you can gain confidence from winning,” Simmons said.

As the Illini look forward to building a program in the future, they do not want to leave their seniors without a conference win.

Zook said he named running backs Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey, along with tackle Ryan Matha on defense, as captains of Saturday’s game.

“Pierre Thomas called us together after the Penn State game and talked about working hard for the seniors,” Simmons said. “We don’t want to see them go out as losers.”

Coach Denise Zook

Zook’s biggest critic might be his wife, Denise. Zook said after the game his wife asked him why he did not kick a field goal instead of pooch punting from the Ohio State 32-yard line.

“My wife asked me of all people,” Zook said. “If I had the decision all over again, I might kick it. At the time (kicker Jason Reda’s) hip was bothering him.”

Zook said that Reda’s hip has improved, and he should be ready to kick come Saturday.

Friday Night Lights

The night before the Ohio State game, Zook took his team to Ohio Stadium to let them get a glimpse of the prolific stadium.

“I wanted to see their eyes,” Zook said. “It is important for them to see that and get it over with. It gives us one less thing to deal with in the game.”

The Cannon

Last week, Illinois and Ohio State played for the “Illibuck.” This week the Illini will be playing for the “Cannon.”

The “Cannon” made its first trip to Champaign in 1905 when a group of Purdue students brought it to celebrate its 29-0 victory, but the Cannon was never fired.

An Illinois student found the cannon hidden near the old Illinois Field. The student and a group of his Delta Upsilon brothers held it until 1943, when they donated it as a traveling trophy of the Illinois-Purdue rivalry.

Now after the game, the winning team fires the Cannon. The last time the Illini fired it was Nov. 4, 2001.

A Couple of Hoosiers

Mitchell and Simmons are two of eight players on the Illini roster from Indiana.

Mitchell, who is from Fort Wayne, said he has many ties to Purdue from friends and family and will hear a lot about it before Saturday’s game.

“It will add to the excitement,” Mitchell said. “My dad talks about Purdue and Indiana all the time. My uncle played there. My uncle has already said something to my dad about it. He always talks about the Boilermakers.”

Simmons is the opposite. Growing up in Indiana, he was a Notre Dame fan.

“I’ve never really liked Purdue,” Simmons said. “I got invited to one of their camps, and I didn’t go to it and they didn’t call me back.”