Illini seniors aspire to win one for the underclassmen

By Derek Barichello

The senior class is in a peculiar situation this week.

Thirteen of them, only three of them starters, will take the field for the last time Saturday at Memorial Stadium, and the underclassmen have already said they would like them to go out with a win, but the seniors are the ones dedicating their efforts to the underclassmen.

“To get a win would be great momentum going into the next season for our young guys, some people are probably laughing, ‘You finished 3-8, how is that momentum?'” senior defensive tackle Ryan Matha said. “But just that one win and getting that taste, could set this program in the right direction for years to come.”

Despite the lack of results this season, Matha is convinced the program is heading in the right direction.

“It’s been a tough time around here, but with the new coaching staff and the new guys they are going to bring in, things are going to be turned around,” Matha said. “There won’t be as many sad times in Memorial Stadium on Saturdays.”

The seniors are just sad that they will not be there when it does turn around.

“Personally, I wish I had more time with the program,” senior safety Kyle Kleckner said. “Just seeing the success we’re going to have in the future, it’s upsetting to know what you’re doing, the sport you’ve played, is coming to an end. We only have five days left together, and it’s going to be tough when it’s all over.”

For the seniors who did not redshirt, they will graduate as the first class since the Class of ’77 to have not played in a bowl game.

Recruited by former head coach Ron Turner, they were not able to put together a winning record, coming closest in their freshman season at 5-6.

And when Turner was fired, they were put in a rebuilding situation with a new coach.

But head coach Ron Zook said the seniors’ efforts will not be forgotten. He said they are welcome to visit the team any time and apologized to them for the lack of success.

“They’ve done a heck of a job,” Zook said. “They’ve played the hand they were dealt. For the most part they’ve done everything they’ve been asked. I’m going to hate like heck to see them go. I really want them to go out a winner and have them leave feeling good about themselves.”

Even though a win would be nice, Kleckner said it would not cure all.

“It wouldn’t erase everything that has happened negatively this season,” Kleckner said. “But at the same time it would give us one last memory of getting that taste of victory. Sitting and singing with your teammates one last time in the locker room would be great.”

Zook, who only lost one college game in his playing days at Miami of Ohio, said he could not imagine how hard it has been for the seniors to deal with all the losing.

“I don’t know if I could bare it,” he said.

Zook can barely handle losing as it is now.

“We’ve been in games where we’ve at least had an opportunity to make it close and it turns out to be a lopsided loss, and you can just tell the pain on his face. And how much he hurts for us,” Matha said. “Just to see how much a guy who knows us not even a year yet, hurt for us. That’s been a good thing.”

End-of-year Evaluation

Zook took a moment to reflect on the improvement the team has made throughout the season.

He was particularly excited about how well the defense has played in the past weeks.

“They have matured and gotten better,” Zook said. “They’re trying to do what we’ve been coaching them to do. I’ve spent an awful lot of time on it since I’ve gotten here, and it will be a heck of a test for them this week.”

Zook is concerned with the offense, though.

“We’ve sputtered,” he said. “I’m not sure why. Maybe we’re asking players to do some things they can’t do, or we’re not hitting on all cylinders. We’re playing behind the chains.

NFL?

When asked whether Zook felt any of the graduating seniors had a chance to play in the NFL, Zook said he hoped so, but was skeptical.

“It’s not something you can count on,” Zook said. “I told (punter) Steve (Weatherford), you have to be one of the best 32 punters in the world. It’s not necessarily who kicks it the highest or farthest. And as with everything else, running backs, each team keeps three, so you have to be one of 96 and so on.”

Brasic still the man

Brasic will remain the starter for Saturday.

“He’s a gutty guy, he’s a tough guy, he has a lot of confidence in himself,” Zook said. “I told him to forget everything and just go out and play.”

Third-stringer Billy Garza might be added to the mix-up because back-up Chris Pazan hurt his head against Purdue and is questionable for Saturday.

Injured Illini

Along with Pazan, offensive lineman JJ Simmons is questionable. Zook said Simmons told him he was going to play, but Zook said Simmons’ ankle is still bothering him and it will be a gametime decision.