Illini ‘backed into a corner’ with Hawkeyes on tap

 

 

By Wes Anderson

Ron Zook has never beaten Iowa in his head coaching career. The Illini will likely need to change history Saturday if they hope to keep their bowl chances alive.

Although six wins are the minimum for bowl eligibility, what is expected to be a packed field of six-win teams raises the stakes considerably.

In the four remaining regular season games, Illinois (4-4, 2-3 Big Ten) will probably need three wins to ensure a spot in a bowl game.

“That’s one of the things about college football,” Zook said. “That’s one of the things about life. You’re going to get backed into a corner, how you come up and how you come out on that thing is going to depend on what you’re going to be all about.”

Last week’s loss at Wisconsin has undoubtedly changed the tone of practices, and the Hawkeyes (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten), who upset Illinois at Kinnick Stadium last year, pose another challenge for the reeling Illini.

As a result, Zook has increased the intensity of practices this week, including a helping of wind sprints before the end of Monday’s practice.

“We’ve got to make sure we take care of us,” Zook said. “We’re prepared to play the way we’re capable of playing, and if you’re not, it’s obvious we’re going to be in for a long day.”

Quarterback Juice Williams, who threw three interceptions against the Badgers, was not surprised to see the changes.

“Coach Zook is a winner,” Williams said. “He demands excellence out of us, and when he doesn’t get it, he comes down hard on us.”

Turning the Illini’s prospects around will likely come down to stopping Shonn Greene. The Iowa running back is having a breakout senior season, rushing for at least 100 yards in all eight games this year. Two weeks ago, Greene ran for 217 yards and four touchdowns against the same Wisconsin team that beat Illinois.

“You can’t stop him, you’ve just got to hope to slow him down,” linebackers coach Dan Disch said. “Nobody’s done it yet. We’re going to do our best.”

Ricky Stanzi has also performed admirably under center for the Hawkeyes after presumptive starter Jake Christensen struggled early in the season. The sophomore has not thrown more than 30 passes in any game this season, but he has not thrown an interception in his last two games and has managed the Hawkeye offense well.

“You have to obviously respect the running attack and it gives him an opportunity to come out and put the ball in there,” Zook said. “The more he plays the more confident he gets.”

Zook’s first meeting with Iowa came in the 2004 Outback Bowl, when he was still the head coach at Florida. The Gators lost that game, 37-17. At Illinois, Zook has gone 0-3 against Iowa and has not scored more than seven points in any of the three meetings.

The Hawkeyes and Purdue are the only Big Ten teams Zook has yet to beat. This year’s game will also be the final regular-season meeting with the Hawkeyes until 2011 due to a shuffling of the conference schedule next year.

“Until we beat them, we just have to keep our mouths shut and go play,” Zook said. “I’m not in any position to say anything. Right now they’ve had the upper hand, and it’s our job to go do the best we can.”