Illini focus on themselves to avoid slip up

Last week, the Illini scored a 33-15 victory over Arkansas State. After a slow start, the offense seemed to click in the second half while the defense held the Red Wolves out of the end zone until the final minutes of the fourth quarter, giving the Illini their first 1-0 start in five years. Next week, Illinois will be visited by Arizona State, a team that many have picked to win the Pac-12, in a game expected as a true measuring stick for where both teams stand.

And in between is South Dakota State, an FCS squad that owns a 1-18 record all-time against Big Ten opponents, with its lone victory coming back in 1935 against Wisconsin.

On paper, it would seem like the Illini should easily roll against the Jackrabbits and begin preparing for their important matchup with the Sun Devils. But not so fast, warned Illini head coach Ron Zook.

“This team coming in here this week, we all know it’s going to be a challenge,” Zook said. “They played Nebraska very, very tough last year. So they’re going to come in here and we’re going to get the same effort.”

Junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus said the Illini must have the same mindset as they had against Arkansas State if they want to have the same results.

“We have to be the same way from last week, just being focused and not underestimating the team that we’re going against,” he said. “Just being very prepared in all aspects of the game.”

For Zook, though, the opponent isn’t his biggest concern this week. It’s his own football team.

“It’s important that we take care of us, that we make the improvement that we need to make,” he said.

It seems the Illini have taken Zook’s message to heart, as many have already begun focusing on what they can improve. The offensive line was one group that was particularly hard on itself after Saturday’s game, with multiple members saying they gave a ‘C’ performance.

“We did all right,” center Graham Pocic said. “We didn’t play as well as we needed to play. We came out this week and we’re trying to work harder. We’re ready to run the ball and run the ball a little bit better this week.”

Despite Illinois picking up 202 yards rushing on 50 carries last weekend, tackle Jeff Allen said he is looking to do even more against the Jackrabbits.

“I’m looking to get a lot of rushing yards,” he said. “We showed we can pass last week, and that was great, but I’m looking forward to showing we can run the ball.”

Allen and the rest of the offensive line will have their work cut out for them, though, as SDSU features an aggressive defense and a strong defensive line.

“They’re a talented group, a bunch of tough kids that are going to try to outhit us and outwork us and fly to the ball, so we just gotta come out and stop them,” Pocic said.

The task doesn’t seem to be any easier for the defense, either, as the Jackrabbits come in with a balanced offensive attack. Their passing attack is led by junior quarterback Thomas O’Brien, who has racked up 18 career starts at SDSU. Last week, O’Brien completed 27 of 40 passes for 279 yards and three touchdowns. On the ground, junior Tyrel Kool has played both running back and wide receiver for the Jackrabbits and found success at both positions. In SDSU’s opening game, Kool picked up 107 yards rushing on 28 carries to go along with six catches for 79 yards and a touchdown.

That balance of rush and pass presents an interesting dilemma for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who said the biggest key will be to focus on taking away at least one aspect of the Jackrabbits’ offense.

“When you try to defend everything, you end up defending nothing,” Koenning said. “We just gotta try to be as fundamentally sound as we can.”