Illini out for revenge in Big Ten season opener

By Mike Theodore

Illini fans may be looking to this Saturday’s matchup with Indiana as a chance at redemption and a way to help erase the pains of the last two years’ defeats at the hands of the Hoosiers.

For the Illinois coaching staff, winning the team’s third straight game is the utmost priority – not erasing bad memories. But make no mistake, head coach Ron Zook is aware he has not yet won against the border rival.

“We haven’t beaten them in the two years since I’ve been here and that’s my concern,” Zook said at his weekly news conference.

Last season the Illini entered the Indiana game with momentum after beating Michigan State to earn their first conference road victory since 2002.


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Tipping the scales

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But the momentum would not last.

Illinois let an 18-point second quarter lead evaporate and lost 34-32 after Indiana kicker Austin Starr hit a 33-yard field goal as time expired.

Illinois dominated early, scoring on its first five drives of the game. The Illini attempted two-point conversions after their second and third touchdowns and failed on both tries. Indiana grabbed the momentum at the start of the second half when Marcus Thigpen returned the opening kick 98 yards. From there Hoosier quarterback Kellen Lewis led the comeback. The true freshman threw for 240 yards and ran for an additional 47. And it was Lewis who led the Hoosiers 80 yards in the last 1:59 of the game to set up the Indiana field goal. Starr didn’t miss, winning the game for Indiana and putting the Illini in a downward spiral that closed the season with seven straight losses.

“The way and the fashion we lost last year on the last second field goal kick – that right there is motivation in itself,” assistant head coach Reggie Mitchell said.

In the 2005 season, Indiana celebrated its Homecoming with a dominating performance. The Hoosiers won 36-13 and Blake Powers threw four touchdown passes. Two turnovers by Illini quarterback Tim Brasic led to Hoosier scores. The second turnover came in the fourth quarter and stopped any thought of an Illini comeback.

In ’07, both teams are hoping this could be the season to finally have success in the Big Ten Conference and gain momentum to carry for seasons to come.

The teams have combined for five conference victories the past two seasons and neither team has been to a bowl since Illinois lost to LSU in the 2002 Sugar Bowl.

“Our programs are very, very similar,” Zook said. “We’re both kind of improving at the same rate. The thing that they’ve done is they’ve beaten us twice.”

Illinois is 2-1 heading into conference play for the first time since 2005 and is banking on the influx of talent to sustain the program. The recruiting success and early season victories have fans excited and hoping the team climbs from the lower tier of the league.

“I don’t know if (this game) is so much to separate ourselves from (Indiana), but it’s the first Big Ten game,” said Mitchell on the importance of the game.

Meanwhile, Indiana’s hopes of a bowl rest on Lewis’ shoulders. The elusive QB ranks 27th nationally in total rushing.

“They’re not only well coached but they’re playing at a high level,” Zook said.

The memories from the back-to-back losses are no doubt in the coaching staff’s thoughts, but it knows the past cannot be changed and the focus must remain on this season.

“I look at it as a game that we have to win,” Zook said. “In the Big Ten schedule you play eight games and all of them are awfully important. This one just happens to be the first one and it just happens to be a program we haven’t beaten yet. So it’s going to be important we just go over there and play the way we are capable.”