Illini begin ‘new season’ with Big Ten conference play

By now, all the Illinois football players are well aware of the statistics.

Their 4-0 start is the Illini’s first since the 1951 national championship season. Their five-game winning streak, starting with last year’s Texas Bowl, is the team’s longest since 2007 and is the fourth-longest active streak in the country. And their current ranking, No. 24 in the AP Poll, is Illinois’ first appearance in the top 25 since September of ‘08.

But with Big Ten play set to begin Saturday against Illinois’ in-state rivals, the Northwestern Wildcats, the Illini have taken on a fresh mindset: new season.

“We really broke down the season into three parts,” quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “We said it was gonna be important to go 4-0 in the nonconference, so now that part of the season is done. You can almost look at it like we’re 0-0 going into this next part.”

Linebacker Ian Thomas said the start of Big Ten play is the time for Illinois to take its intensity to the next level.

“This is like the actual season, it’s really starting now,” Thomas said. “This is very important for us now, as opposed to the nonconference. They were important, but they weren’t the Big Ten. We just wanna win every Big Ten game. We’re taking it a little more serious, stepping it up even more.”

Thomas said the Illini will also need to step up their physicality, as the Big Ten really does live up to it’s smash-mouth reputation.

“Arizona State and those kind of guys, they were more pass-oriented,” Thomas said. “The Big Ten is more between the tackles, running the ball type. That’s the difference in preparation, you gotta prepare for the run more. … I definitely love that type of football. That’s my type of football.”

As the intensity steps up a notch, so will the excitement. Especially now with the conference’s newest member, Nebraska, as well as the formation of two separate divisions and a conference championship game, Scheelhaase said people are even more excited for Big Ten play than ever before.

“With the way the conference is realigned, I think people are just getting more excited about conference play getting here,” Scheelhaase said. “It’s conference play time, and everybody in the country is pretty excited.”

For the Illini, though, the coaching staff has been sending the message to the players that they must keep their emotions in check now more than ever.

“Our coaches have told us to remember the positive feeling we had after we beat ASU, and we want that feeling again,” defensive end Whitney Mercilus said. “But don’t forget, you gotta concentrate each week, play after play, and practice perfect.”

At the same time, though, Mercilus also admitted that there is a feeling building around the team that this season could turn into something special.

“Yeah, definitely, it definitely is,” he said. “Since we’ve gone to a 4-0 start for the first time in what, 60 years, definitely we feel like there is something special here within the team and it’s finally clicking together. We’re just hoping to keep that ball rolling throughout the season.”

However, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning warned that there is still plenty of work to be done if the Illini want to capture their first Big Ten title since 2001.

“We’re not working hard enough, we don’t have our heart in the right place if we’re not getting obstacles put in front of us,” Koenning said. “We’re not hitting the right buttons, we’re not going the right places, we’re not heading in the right direction if we’re not having obstacles put in front of us.”

Koenning also warned of the kind of off-the-field distractions that can derail a team midseason.

“Whether it’s people writing things in the media or people saying things on blogs, or people getting hurt or being tired, or girlfriends getting mad at us, or not getting enough sleep,” he said. “Whatever it is, we know we’re gonna have obstacles in front of us. It’s how we deal with those that’s going to determine our success.”