Illinois puts final touches on preparation for Rose Bowl

By Jason Grodsky

PASADENA, Calif. – With just more than 24 hours left to kickoff of the biggest game for Illinois football in the last six years, head coach Ron Zook and his players are ready to get things going.

The Illini have put the final touches on their preparation and Zook is pleased with the way his players have focused amidst the large amount of media and national attention revolving around the game.

“I was excited about the way we prepared, the way our players are focused, dialed in,” Zook said. “You could really tell a couple days ago in our hotel, the buzz, the chaos, so to speak, began to come into the hotel and our players could feel it.”

Illinois will enter the game with all its weapons available on both sides of the ball. The Illini are healthier than they have been all season and Zook said there are no injury issues going into the game. He even indicated that freshman receiver Arrelious Benn could see time returning punts.

Benn had been hampered by a shoulder injury he suffered a few weeks before the season started that kept him from returning more kicks and punts than Zook would have liked.

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“(Benn) caught an awful lot of punts this week,” Zook said. “We’ll start with DaJuan (Warren) back there, and as far as Arrelious’ shoulder, it’s the best it’s ever been since it happened.”

With the team healthy the Illini believe they are ready to shock the college football nation with another upset in a season full of them that has shaken up the college football landscape.

For that to happen, the Illini will once again try to ride the feet of Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Rashard Mendenhall.

Getting Mendenhall on track early will be a key for the Illini to allow some of the pressure on quarterback Juice Williams to be lessened, and USC knows that.

“He’s a great player, beautifully well-rounded football player,” USC head coach Pete Carroll said. “He runs physically with an attitude. He’s going to fight and work for it. He’s a true NFL-style running back and has a big future ahead of him.”

Mendenhall and the rest of the team won’t just have the Illini nation on their back when they take on the Trojans but also believe it’s their responsibility to win for the Big Ten conference.

“You have to have pride about where you go to school or the conference that you’re in,” Zook said. “I know this, there’s teams in this league that with play with anybody in the country and you can say that, but you have to go do it. We understand that we have to go out there and play to the best of our ability for the conference.”

Even with a lot of pressure on them to represent the school and conference the Illini don’t expect to be nervous when they take the field.

They even won’t stop to take everything in when they step onto the field at the Rose Bowl. That will come after the final snap.

“We’ll be focused come game time and we’ll take things in after the game,” senior offensive lineman Martin O’Donnell said. “Before the game we’ll have tunnel vision and be focused.”