Zook looks to break 2-game losing streak

Illinois quarterback Juice Williams is stopped by Michigan safety Jamar Adams on Saturday. The Illini host Ball State for Homecoming on Saturday. Erica Magda

By Mike Theodore

Big Ten foe or not, head coach Ron Zook is trying to keep his team focused on the task at hand.

The Illini are looking to snap their two-game losing streak this Saturday when they host Ball State in their first nonconference game since Sept. 15.

“It’s crucial, it’s imperative,” Zook said on Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “We’re both trying to become bowl eligible.”

Illinois has lost back-to-back games for the first time this season, and like last year, the Illini have scheduled a Mid-American Conference opponent for their off week.

Illinois dropped last year’s Homecoming game last season 20-17 to Ohio.

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“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with stepping outside the league for a game or two,” Zook said.

Ball State comes in as winners of three of its last four and boasts the nation’s 18th ranked offense. The Cardinals lost to Nebraska on the road 41-40 in their fourth game of the season but tallied more than 610 yards in total offense.

“It’s hard to get 600 yards on air,” Zook said.

Quarterback Nate Davis leads the Cardinal attack and his 20 touchdown passes this season have already set a school record.

“He is a thrower, a winger, a slinger,” Zook said. “He’s a tough guy.”

Zook said Davis reminds him of Missouri’s Chase Daniel – the quarterback that threw for 359 yards in the season opener against the Illini secondary.

“(Davis) has an unbelievable quick release,” Zook added.

The Cardinals also will bring a solid special teams unit to Champaign. Punter Chris Miller, a Libertyville, Ill., native, ranks second in the nation with a 47.18 punting average. He placed five of his 10 punts last week inside the 20-yard line.

The Ball State defense is struggling against the run, having allowed more than 200 yards rushing three times, including 521 rushing yards on 65 attempts against Navy in a 34-31 overtime victory.

“It’s going to be a heck of a football game,” Zook said.

“We owe it to our seniors, we owe it to our fans – this is Homecoming.”

Special teams update

Last weekend against Michigan, for the first time all season, the Illini special teams units directly contributed to a loss. Senior wide receiver and punt returner Kyle Hudson muffed a punt deep in Illini territory, which helped set up the Wolverines’ game-winning touchdown.

Zook stood behind the dual-sport athlete Tuesday and said he will be the punt returner this Saturday.

“No one is more torn up than him,” Zook said. “It’s like striking out; you’ve got to get back in the batter’s box.”

The Illini’s Joe Morgan was flagged for a personal foul for roughing the punter in the first half and Jason Reda missed his first field goal of the year in the third quarter.

“To go where we’re going, your special teams have got to be consistent everyday,” Zook said.

Daily Illini staff writer Daniel Johnson contributed to this report