CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Illinois rolled through its first six games with big plays, comebacks and happy endings, landing a spot in the Top 25 with a perfect start.
Two straight losses have pushed the Illini (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) back outside that list of college football’s elite and led coach Ron Zook to lower his players’ horizons a bit – from talk about bowl games and what might happen if they keep winning to a more fundamental football focus.
One play at a time.
“We’re going to go out there and play the best we can play on that first play and then we’re going to play the second play,” he said.
The Illini will start their work this Saturday against Penn State (7-1, 4-0). The No. 21 Nittany Lions have won six straight.
After averaging 34.7 points in its 6-0 start, the Illinois had 21 total the past two weeks, and failed to score a point in either of those two losses before the fourth quarter.
Zook said that, aside from facing stiff defenses, he isn’t sure just what changed.
“If I had an answer we wouldn’t be shut out,” he said, adding that he doesn’t feel the need to make major changes in Illinois’ approach. “You just don’t get bad, you just don’t become a bad coach. It doesn’t happen. You work through those things and you keep going.”
Nathan Scheelhaase, who was 22 of 35 for 217 yards at Purdue, said the offense has suffered through a string of small mistakes – one here, one there – rather than any larger problems in need of serious changes.
“In the first half, really, it was almost like people just took turns not executing your assignment,” the quarterback said.
One thing Illinois might do differently Saturday is give senior tailback Jason Ford a shot at a big game. Ford had 87 yards and a touchdown at Purdue but, with the Illini down 21-0 at halftime, had just 10 carries.
Against the Nittany Lions, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino expects a game of short bursts rather than big plays
“The focus this week is to be an old fashioned, tough grind-it-out win,” he said. “We’ve got to have 10- and 12-play drives.”
Zook said he told Ford to expect to see a lot of the ball.
“We’re going to put the saddle on him and ride him and see what we get out of him,” Zook said.
The Illini, he said, have played tight the past two weeks, starting with the Ohio State game. This game Saturday would seem to be just the opposite of what a team under pressure, one that’s pressing, needs – a streaking opponent in Penn State, a big, loud stadium and a national TV audience in a prime, mid-afternoon slot.
But Zook said sometimes that kind of game produces less pressure than the sort of game you’re supposed to win. The game at Penn State, he argued, might be just what his team needs.
“We are going to go out and play loose,” he said, as if ordering his team to relax. “These guys are looking forward to it.”
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