Illini Focus On Ohio State In Practices

Tavon Wilson (Holly Smith)

The Fighting Illini football team is continuing its climb up the national ladder. Individual players are enjoying the spotlight evolving from their stellar play. Those are the rewards for a 6-0 start to the season. But the Illini face the toughest part of their schedule, beginning with Ohio State Saturday. They know they must keep their noses to the grindstone.

The Illinois football team is receiving awards for its play. Cornerback Tavon Wilson is the latest recipient, winning Big 10 Defensive Player Of The Week. But as his five predecessors have done, Wilson reminded that team success is more important.

"It's great. It shows how much better a team we're becoming. Everyone's getting individual awards. It was exciting for me to get one, but we've got to continue going out there and playing as a team. Those type of things will happen for all of us."

Wilson is extremely happy about the perfect start to the season, but he knows the season is far from over.

"That's the best part, but it doesn't mean nothing unless we keep it going. It's a great start, but it's all about how you finish. We always talk about finishing games and finishing the season the best we can."

Confidence is possibly the best gift for a winning team. Wilson and his teammates have that in abundance.

"This is the best team we've had since I've been here. We feel like we can compete against anybody."

Wilson's primary challenger for the Big 10 award might have been defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who now leads the nation in total sacks with 8.5. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning is happy for Mercilus, but he keeps pushing him to better himself.

"I think he's had some games that were better than others. Consistency is obviously something we're striving for. All we're trying to do is get Whitney to be better this week than he was last week, and be better in practice tomorrow than he was (today)."

Mercilus is setting a great example for his teammates.

"He's giving us an opportunity because he's doing some things right. He's giving us an opportunity to show other guys, 'If you had done it the way you're supposed to do...' There were several occasions last Saturday where guys would have had sacks or plays if they had done things the way they were supposed to do or were as efficient as we'd like to be. We can still get a whole lot better.

"He's fundamentally sound and lets the game come to him. He does what he's supposed to do. He's quick enough and strong enough, but the key thing is he does things right."

Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino is a tough task master, but he has reason to praise his offense. He says the team is where he hoped it would be after six games, but there is still room for improvement.

"We said in the summer we wanted to be 6-0 going into this game (Ohio State). This will be a big game at home. Offensively, we're averaging more points than we did last year at this time or the end of the year. We've still got to continue to improve. There's always things we can get better at. We've just got to grind every day."

The running attack was a concern last week, but a hard week of practice paid off at Indiana.

"We got better. I really forced it in the second half. It was good to see. One time, I wanted us to prove we could do it. I thought all three backs ran the ball better. I thought the line played way better. And by far it was Nathan (Scheelhaase's) best game running the ball."

Many Illini fans fear injury to Scheelhaase and would prefer he ran less, especially with a lead late in a game. Petrino has a uniquely opposite perspective based on personal experience.

"My dad raised me. We were an option football team, and I was live every day in practice. When you're a running quarterback, you run. I think he has less chance getting hurt running the ball than he does standing in the pocket getting whacked in the back.

"It's usually the guys that shy away from contact that get whacked. If you run with great passion and run hard, be aggressive, that's the best way to stay healthy.

"When he runs, I don't worry. We didn't throw many passes at the end. To me, that's protecting him."

Illini Nation has expressed a big concern about Special Team play. Indiana ran back the opening kickoff last week, and the player wasn't touched. In contrast, the Illini often have trouble passing the 20 yard line and rarely gain great field position. Illinois head coach Ron Zook accepts blame for the problems but discusses the cause.

"It's not the system, I mean the system's no different from anybody else. It's the guy kicking the ball, it's the guys running down there making the tackle. You know, there were three guys that weren't where they were supposed to be (on the opening kickoff). There will be some people changes."

There is also some concern about safety where Supo Sanni and Steve Hull are inexperienced starters. Defensive back coach Mike Gillhamer sees weekly progress from his safeties.

"We're coming along. We've made some good plays, and we've made some mistakes. We've just got to be consistent.

"The safeties have done a pretty good job. They're young; it's the first time both of them have started. We keep getting better back there."

Zook was asked if this team compares with the 2007 Rose Bowl team.

"If there is a comparison, it's that these guys are allowing the coaches to coach them. They're coaching them hard and demanding and pushing. That's one of the big reasons that we're having success. They're not getting their feelings on their sleeve and pouting. They're going out there and trying to do what their coaches are asking them to do."

They are also following the mantra of looking only at the next game on the schedule and not getting ahead of themselves by imagining possibilities down the line.

"I haven't noticed that, and hopefully you guys (media) don't put it in their heads. Our deal is, we've got one game at a time. We don't look ahead, we don't look behind. They've done a pretty good job of that, in my opinion.

"They understand that, if we're not prepared and ready to play to the best of our ability, then everything we've done to now is for naught."

From all indications, the Illini have enjoyed another quality practice week and will be prepared for their best effort Saturday against the powerful Buckeyes.

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