CHAMPAIGN With big losses to Louisiana Tech and Penn State coming in back-to-back weeks, Illinois football fans, players and coaches are certainly feeling an unwelcome feeling of dj vu. Coach Tim Beckman addressed the losses at his weekly press conference on Monday, expressing his concern for the team and Illini Nation as a whole.
These last two weeks have been real, real tough. No question about it, he said. Our intentions are to continue to get better.
To get better, Beckman and the Illini will draw upon their personal experience. For the coach, that means remembering the lessons he learned in his first year at Toledo, when the Rockets went through a three-game skid and had to regroup.
We made it through doing the same thing were doing now: communicate with the football players, talk about it, and find the reasons why were losing, Beckman said. We have great kids and they understand. They want to win as bad as anybody.
The players are going to have to draw upon what they learned during their six-game losing streak during the final half of the 2011 season. The Illini are going to have to use that negative experience in a positive way to avoid a similar situation in the 2012 season.
Safety Supo Sanni, who played last week for the first time since Illinois loss to Arizona State, said the team would learn from last season but not let the memory of the 2011 campaign get them down.
Last year is in the past, this is a totally different year. We have new players, a totally different scheme, new coaches so last year is not in my thought process, Sanni said. The thing to do is just go out every weekend to the best of our ability.
As a senior leader, Sanni said it was tough for him to sit out, but he used the time to help younger players like Earnest Thomas grow as a player. He said the two watched film together and spoke in practice to help Thomas improve as a player and to help both of them improve as a secondary unit.
The practice time combined with Sannis familiarity with Wisconsin allowed the senior safety to feel comfortable about his assignment for the upcoming weekend.
Weve been going through every day, attacking practice with game day mentality. That will help tremendously, Sanni said. We know what Wisconsin is going to do theyre going to line up and try to run the ball.
This isnt anything new to us, this week we just have to play physical, get healthy and do the things we need to do to get a win at Wisconsin.
Having quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase fully healthy will help the Illinois offense make the plays they need to in order to get a win.
One of the keys to the game, according to Beckman, will be the running game. With his ankle back at full strength, Scheelhaase expects to be a major factor in the Illini ground attack. He also expects his added contribution to open up other areas for success.
I felt good about running when I did a couple days ago and I really felt like I was starting to get my legs back underneath me, Scheelhaase said. This will benefit the team in a great way, not just on designed quarterback run, but when things start to break down being able to get loose and get out of the pocket. Those are some things I was able to on Saturday, and when I can do that it puts more pressure on the defense and when you can put more pressure on the defense from the quarterback position that helps the offense in the best way.
Before the Penn State game the talk around the Illinois locker room was about 12-1-12, the date of the Big Ten Championship game. After the loss, players and coaches altered their talking points, insisting their focus is solely on the game in front of them at this point and improving for that game.
Were not thinking about any tough stretches in the season, or really anything down the road. All were thinking about is going to Madison and doing what we need to do during the week to prepared and get a win, Scheelhaase said.
The preparation of the Illini comes down to Beckman, however, and hes not taking the responsibility lightly. Especially after his teams disappointing Big Ten opener last Saturday.
This has to be a process, we have to continue to push ourselves, Beckman said. No one likes to lose; theres not a young man in the locker room a player, or trainer, or manager, or coach that likes to lose. Weve got to continue to strive to get ourselves better, to find what the problems are and fix them.
-- Linebacker Mason Monheim earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors after his performance against Penn State in which he came up with a career-high 11 tackles and forcing a fumble. So far this season he has 28 tackles, which ranks third on the team, and two forced fumbles, which has him tied for best in the conference.
Im sure Mason would say hed rather get the honor with a W, Beckman said. I was proud of Monheim and freshman Mike Svetina, they played hard. And I was proud of the way they took the challenge of coming in and playing as true freshmen.
-- Sannis return last week was a boost to an ailing Illinois secondary and Beckman was very happy to announce that the senior would be able to start at Wisconsin this Saturday. Sanni was pleased as well, and said he felt great.
Im healthy, 100 percent. Ready to lead our secondary and be a vocal leader on the team so we can get back to where we need to be, he said. It felt great being back on the field, it felt normal. But the best part was being out there with my brothers, my family.
-- The Illinois secondary got another boost when Thomas was not dealt a suspension after being ejected for a helmet-to-helmet hit in the endzone on Penn State tight end Matt Lehman.
Beckman confirmed that he spoke with the Big Ten office and Thomass hit was judged to be unintentional, meaning he will not face further punishment for the hit.
-- Beckman did deliver bad news for the defense on Monday, however. The coach confirmed that sophomore defensive lineman Jake Howe will miss the rest of the season with a broken arm. He did not specify whether the McHenry product would seek a medical redshirt or not.
Its been a snowball effect thats happened to us in these last two games. I think weve competed, the kids have fought, but weve got to not be giving up big plays and we have to be successful on offense.
The mental aspect is the hardest part to correct, theres no question.