Non-conference game gives Illinois chance to right ship

By Jason Grodsky

The Illinois football team will take a break from its tough Big Ten schedule this weekend when it hosts Mid-American Conference’s Ohio University Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.

Coming off a heartbreaking 34-32 last-second defeat on Homecoming against Indiana last weekend the Illini are hoping a break from its traditional Big Ten schedule will be just what they need to get back on track.

“We just look at it as these guys get to join the Big Ten for a week,” sophomore linebacker Brit Miller said. “We know how important victories are right now and how hard they are to come by. Being a young team we have to learn how to win down the stretch.”

At the midway point of the season the Illini sit at 2-4 with a 1-2 record in the Big Ten, and while the Illini feel they let a win slip away against Indiana they know there is still a lot of football left to be played and more improvement to be made.

“We’re halfway through, we’re 2-4, which is not where we’d like to be,” head coach Ron Zook said. “We’ve got six games to go, we’re going to take them one at a time, and continue to improve, and I think that they’ve proven to themselves that we have an opportunity to be a much better team than we show at times.”

Ohio (3-3, 2-1) comes into Champaign to play the Illini for the first time in 56 years, but for Bobcats’ junior back-up quarterback Brad Bower it will have only been two years since he has stepped on the field at Memorial Stadium.

Bower transferred from Illinois to Ohio following the 2004 season and has played in five games for the Bobcats, completing 12 passes for 126 yards. As an Illini in 2004, Bower played in seven games and started four, completing 57-of-100 passes and throwing for 658 yards and four touchdowns.

“I’ll probably say ‘what’s up’ and shake his hand,” senior offensive lineman Matt Maddox said. “Everyone has their own feelings and everyone has personal reasons for why they leave. I’m sure he has a legitimate reason for what he did.”

Bower and the Bobcats are coming off a big 27-20 win over conference opponent Western Michigan and have already gone on the road and upset one of the favorites to win the MAC, Northern Illinois.

Over the last two seasons the Bobcats have scored upsets over BCS Conference schools, including a 16-10 overtime victory at home over Pittsburgh last season and a 28-16 road win against Kentucky in 2004.

“They’re a team that is playing with confidence,” Zook said. “The last two years they have beaten a team from a BCS conference and I’m sure they feel like they can do that to us.”

The Illini and Bobcats will kick-off at 6 p.m. It will be the second time this season the Illini will have played a night game and they are hoping for similar success under the lights as they had earlier this season.

Illinois’ only other night game has also been its only win at Memorial Stadium this season, as the Illini defeated Eastern Illinois 42-17 in the season opener.

“Night games are where it’s at,” Miller said. “We’ve been stuck at that 11 a.m. spot for the two years I’ve been here, so getting to play at night is a little different because the anticipation kind of gets to you. It creates a little better atmosphere for us as a team.”