Win rekindles hopes for bowl, preseason optimism for team

After the Illini began the season with a 37-9 loss to Missouri on Sept. 5, a mystified Illinois head coach Ron Zook maintained that the team’s performance was uncharacteristic of its capabilities.

“I sure wouldn’t have thought we’d play like that,” Zook said after the game. “That’s not the kind of offseason we’ve had, the kind of camp we’ve had, the preparation this last week we’ve had.”

But the loss proved to be the first of many, with a 1-6 start washing away high preseason expectations for the team. Having lost all its games by double digits and with 7.5-point favorite Michigan coming to town on Halloween weekend, the outlook was bleak at best for the Illini.

But the Illini offense finally showed signs of life and the defense stood tall for a second-half shutout, leading Illinois to a 38-13 win.

Both players and coaches noticed the difference in energy this week after the win, citing how the momentum from last weekend could carry over for the rest of the season.

“It’s always inspiring coming in on Monday after a win,” junior defensive tackle Josh Brent said. “Anytime you get a win, things are going to be easier in the sense that you’re more motivated then to do things than when you’re coming off a loss when you’re more melancholy.”

Junior linebacker Aaron Gress said that such a win could change the direction of a season, even for an Illini team that is one loss away from no longer being bowl eligible.

“It’s big coming off a win like that,” Gress said. “It definitely changes the things we talk about as a team. There’s a lot more optimism after a game like that for the rest of the season.”

The win saw an Illinois offense that ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring put up 21 points in the third quarter and a defensive unit that ranked as the league’s worst keep Michigan out of the end zone after the first quarter.

Previously frustrated Illini fans were left wondering where this has been all season, but not the players, Brent said.

“Not really, we always knew it was there,” Brent said. “We always knew we were capable of it. We were just glad that everybody played to their ability and some things went our way. We were just appreciative that finally we were able to execute.”

Brent said the team regularly meets to reassess the goals of the season in order to stay optimistic.

“We’ve done that every week,” Brent said. “Obviously the season hasn’t gone the way we wanted to, so every week we reevaluate our goals and try to create a new optimism for the week instead of being down.”

Gress, a junior college transfer who joined the team this past offseason, said that not looking too far down the line has been a point of emphasis this season.

“Apparently that was a bit of a problem last year that hurt the team,” Gress said. “This season, the older guys have been stressing how the key is to go out and play one week at a time and not look too far down the road. Obviously for us and the trouble we’ve had, that’s not too hard.”

Last year’s 5-7 Illinois team lost its final three games of the season to disqualify it from postseason competition.

“It’s game one. It’s a one-game season,” Zook said. “I told them we’re going to play one game at a time. Let’s get this game, and then let’s worry about whatever is after that. But we need to build on the things that we’ve done.”

The Illini will need to win every game remaining this season to become bowl eligible, beginning with Minnesota. But the idea of playing in the postseason, sophomore Mikel LeShoure said, is something that is still in the minds of players.

“That’s something that was our goal at the start of the season,” LeShoure said. “We haven’t put that goal behind us, so we just have to keep working and keep practicing.”