Illini funnel attention toward Tigers

By Daniel Johnson

In one of the more unlikely indicators of team focus, No. 20 Illinois’ preparation for No. 6 Missouri may be best represented by Brit Miller’s hair.

The senior linebacker’s follicles are filling in where there was once a short Mohawk. The Decatur, Ill., native had a bit too much time on his hands at Camp Rantoul when he decided to go with a new coif to keeps things fresh.

“Like, first week into camp, got a little bored on the day off, I guess,” Miller said, rubbing the bristles. “It’s just kind of stuck because you get a little lazy now, focusing in on football.”

And now? Does he have time to keep up with the hair have and have-nots with the biggest season-opening game in Illinois history.

“No,” Miller said with a sigh that is half laugh, half exhaustion. “Just meetings all day, eating, (Camp) Rantoul, stuff like that. It’s focus in time; but I’ll admit, I was up until 3 a.m. last night.”

A late night at one of Champaign’s finest establishments?

“I was trying to pretend I was watching movies, but I was just thinking about the game, what could be, the implications it could have on our season. We’re not putting all our eggs in one basket, but we definitely want this game.”

This game is one that has been dubbed an early BCS game by some media pundits, matching two of the more dynamic offenses from 2007 in a rematch that should put last year’s atmosphere to shame.

“I couldn’t hear the guard next to me. Martin (O’Donnell) was screaming in my ear, and I could not hear a word he was saying,” left tackle Xavier Fulton said of the 40-34 loss.

And if any one player is going to mean more to the game this time around, it is likely to be Missouri’s Chase Daniel. The Heisman candidate has garnered nothing but respect from Illinois, something that will likely change on Saturday.

“He’s a versatile guy,” Miller said before laughing incredulously about the Missouri signal-caller. “We were talking about it today, the guy will throw any pass; he’s not scared. He’ll run the ball, he’ll slide, he might duck his shoulder and come get you. He’s one of the premier quarterbacks in the nation when it comes to passing and ability.”

Although Daniel has progressed as a passer, Illinois has developed as an overall team. Zook has repeated his feelings since January that this has been a better, more experienced team, even with the loss of players like J Leman and Rashard Mendenhall. And one of players that will help to replace the former of the two departed players is the much heralded Martez Wilson.

“This year, we’re more athletic,” the sophomore linebacker said. “We’re a little faster; we’re just trying to put our athleticism with our talent. We have the talent, even though we lost a lot of great players like J and our safeties. We got safeties that can step in and get the job done. Me and Brit and (Rodney Pittman) are going to hold it down at the linebacker spot.”

The team was hesitant to say there was any sort of revenge factor after last year’s game or that it was taking this game that much more seriously than it normally would. Rather, the players were focusing on eliminating mistakes that took them out of contention in last year’s Arch Rivalry.

“Last year, they scored about 17 points without the defense on the field,” senior defensive end Will Davis said. “It’s just about, a team as a whole, to just not make mistakes.”

One thing players are talking about, however, is the fact that the team will have to make statements – early and often this year – to continue its rise. Whether it’s Zook extending Camp Rantoul one extra week, Miller letting his hair become less than chic to focus on the game, the team has an opportunity to make a statement this weekend that would resonate throughout college football if it is able to succeed where it failed so painfully last year.

“More than any other game … it’s more of a statement game,” senior defensive tackle David Lindquist said. “Showing the country that we are for real and last year wasn’t a fluke.