No matchup will be more important for Illinois Saturday than having its run defense shut down the Iowa ground game. Statistically, it looks like a tough matchup. Illinois is ninth in the Big Ten in run defense (152.4 yards a game), while Iowa tailback Shonn Greene is third in the nation in rushing (144.2). But it's a challenge that excites Brit Miller. ``The dude's awesome. Shonn Greene is a baller. He's one of my favorite guys to play against, because he runs the ball hard. He's always aware. he finds little gaps and makes plays happen. He's probably the premier running back in the Big Ten. We have a great challenge in trying to stop him. But it will be fun going against a guy of his caliber.''
Undeterred by Illinois' decision to retire Chief Illiniwek in response to NCAA objections, supporters of Illinois' erstwhile Native-American symbol are planning a rally on Nov. 15 that is expected to include an appearance by the Chief himself, according to published reports. The rally will be held before the Ohio State game. Details are expected to be released by an organization known as Students for Chief Illiniwek, who was retired by the UofI at a Feb. 21, 2007, basketball game. ``This will be the first public appearance of the Chief in regalia on campus'' since that 2007 basketball game, said Roger Huddleston, president of the Honor the Chief Society, which is not organizing the Nov. 15 event, but is supporting it. A replica of the Chief's costume, which is in storage at a campus facility, will be used.
As you might expect, university officials seem a little uncomfortable with this Chief revival.
``Students have free-speech rights," UofI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said. ``[But] we don't have a Chief, and we are not having a Chief event.''
Ron Zook remained coy Tuesday about possible lineup changes for Saturday's game against Iowa, again saying, ``If I make changes, you're not going to know until Saturday.'' The best guess is that there will be some minor moves, but nothing momentous. Who starts isn't all that important, and who gets more playing time often is determined by how people are playing on a given day.
If there are some moves, they're likely to be done with an eye toward pumping up the team psychogically. And middle linebacker Brit Miller thinks that would be a good idea.
``You never know what's going to spark a team,'' he said. ``Right now, we're playing a brand of ball that I view as mediocre. We haven't played to our potential. We need to find a way to rise up, and sometimes. something as little as a personnel change, or the way we practice, could change something. We're at a point where we'll probably try some things like that. That's fine. there a lot of deserving guys on this team. The people that do play will be the guys that deserve it, the guys who work hard all week.''
Ron Zook was not happy with Ilinois' eight penalties in the 27-17 loss at Wisconsin. But the Illinois coach also said there are penalties and there are penalties.
Just so the air is clear on this, Zook didn't bring up penalties. Inquiring media minds did. Zook also stressed that ``We didn't lose that game because of the officials. We lost that game because of the way we played.''
Now, disclaimers aside, let's proceed. . .
``Some of them were penalties and some of them weren't,'' Zook said. ``Like I tell [Big Ten supervisor of officials' Dave Parry all the time, I get judged on the number of penalties that are called, so people think we have an undisciplined team'' if there are a lot of penalties. ``Our team is as disciplined as anybody's. But when you go on the road in the Big Ten, you have to be better than the team, better than the fans and better than the officials. That's just the way it is.''
Translation: Zook is still sensitive about criticism that's he can't coach, even though that's a bunch of Gator bait from his last job. But that's a blog for another day.
And the bottom line is, the Illini thought a Badger defensive lineman was luring Illini tackle Xavier Fulton into false starts, which went unnoticed by the officials.
While not commenting on the officiating, which would be a breach, Zook gave this general rules clarification: ``If a defensive lineman jumps and the offensive lineman reacts simultaneously, it's on the defense, not on the offense.''
Was that happening? Yes.
Daniel Dufrene will start at tailback at Wisconsin Saturday. But who finishes, and more importantly, who gets to carry the load will be determined by who produces. ``Absolutely,'' running backs coach Reggie Mitchell said. ``Whoever's hot will be the guy that will play.'' Ford, the true freshman from Belleville, Ill., made the most of his opportunity vs. Indiana last week, and wound up delivering 172 yards and three touchdowns. ``We just had a feeling Jason would be able to give us a little something different. That's why he got the opportunity to go in early.'' Look for Ford to get some early opportunities against the Badgers, who had difficulty last week with Iowa's Shonn Greene, a short, thick, tough runner who's hard to bring down. Ford also has those attributes.
Offensive tackle is not supposed to be a position that favors youth. Offensive linemen need time in the weight room, and time to learn the intricacies of blocking. But Illinois is finding playing time for a pair of true freshman tackles, and that should pay dividends in the coming years. Jeff Allen, from Chicago King HS, has been starting at right tackle because of Ryan Palmer's injury, and Corey Lewis, from Cresco, PA, is seeing time behind left tackle Xavier Fulton. ``We joked with Corey that he turned 18, so we thought he was old enough,'' coach Ron Zook said.
Told that Arrelious Benn said he'd been putting too much pressure on himself, Juice Williams had a hard time believing it. ``If he was putting too much pressure on himself, I didn't know abput it,''
Williams said. "He does a great job of keeping a level head and never
showing his true feelings. That's surprising to hear. He's a sophomore performing like a senior.''
One reason Benn, who's averaging 135.8 yards and 7.2 catches per Big Ten play, might have caught Juice off-guard: He merely agreed that he had relaxed a bit in the last month when asked about it while mentioning a number of things, including Juice throwing well, other receivers catching balls and an offensive line that was protecting well.
``Maybe I put a little pressure on myself at the beginning,'' he said. ``But I calmed down, let things come to me and just went out and had fun. I'm having a lot of fun. This is something I love doing.''
Ron Zook, who used defensive tackles Josh Brent and Cory Liuget as blocking backs vs. Indiana, said he was pleased with the experiment, and indicated it will continue. Might they even see the ball on the goalline one of these days, the way Mike Ditka handed off to Refrigerator Perry? Don't rule it out.
First blog, Bear with me. We're in new territory. . .
Illinois is 3-3 at the halfway mark. Not where they wanted to be. The Minnesota loss was a big setback to the plan, but they're not panicking, and their fans shouldn't, either. For one thing, Minnesota's better than expected, as will be seen at the end of the year. For another, the Illini are still learning how to win under the burden of expectations. And for another, everything broke right for that surprise Rose Bowl trip last year, just as things are breaking right for Minnesota and Michigan State this year.
In other words, Illinois probably wasn't as good as it looked last year, and it's not as bad as it looks right at the moment.