llini continue to make progress on the gridiron

Oct. 21, 2005

AUDIO - The Last Word with Brian Barnhart, the Voice of the Illini For weeks now, I have preached that the Illinois fan base needs to remain patient. I have discussed how this season is an investment in the future and that the program isn't going to magically rise to the top in a week or a month or even one year.

The 2005 football season is all about progress, and sometimes you've got to take the time out to dig for that progress. While it's easy to be negative, and believe me I have fallen into that category many days in my life, we have look at this situation closely.

I am telling you that through six games of the Ron Zook era, progress is there.

I haven't had to look far in the last few weeks to get fired up and excited about the future of Illinois football. Illinois played better three Saturdays ago up in Iowa City and were just unable to capitalize on some golden opportunities in the first half. Much was the same at Indiana. There were opportunities to make plays that weren't made and some breaks that could have gone their way, but this team proved again that it is young and that it will take time before the players learn to win these types of football games.

Both games were disappointing, and as a fan, it's hard not to be frustrated. But it didn't take me long to get fired up again watching Coach Zook in the past two weeks.

"We're not going to stay status quo," Zook said, responding to questions about why he decided to play some true freshmen at the end of the Iowa game.

"Losing is not acceptable," he said. "We're going to get it corrected.

"I know you get tired of hearing this, and you may have to hear it for another couple of weeks or another year, but we are making progress," Zook reiterated in his press conference after the Indiana game. "As hard as it is for some of you to believe and as hard as it is for some of you to write, we are going to be all right. I know what we're doing is right. This is when you circle the wagons and go back-to-back, and I believe we are stronger today than when I took the job."

Amen! The media might get tired of hearing him say those things, but I certainly don't. While that kind of stuff is obvious to everyone, it's great to see the leader of this football program come out and say it. It's refreshing to hear those words, and all you have to do is be around him for a second to tell that he truly believes it.

You want more evidence? Minutes into the press conference the week after the Iowa game, a reporter asked Zook if he felt it was important to get wins to show recruits tangible evidence that the program is recovering. An emphatic Coach Zook saw it this as an opportunity to deliver an important message.

"We will take care of recruiting. That's why you saw us get on the airplane after the game on Saturday; we were recruiting and not feeling sorry for ourselves. Don't you worry about recruiting, because we have everything we need to recruit here. We will recruit here and you can write that down."

If that doesn't get you fired up as a fan, I don't know what will. It shows me that Ron Zook is going to compete and it shows me that he has an edge and a feistiness to him that drives him to be successful. You think losing a few games isn't going to deter him from recruiting the guys he needs to get or deter him from pushing forward in trying to change the attitude of the players and fans around this program? You could see his quotes and in the staff's actions that this season has only made them more determined.

I want to see a coach who is emotional, who isn't afraid to speak his mind and who isn't scared to stray away from "coach speak." Most of all, I love---absolutely love---that our coach is going to scratch, claw and fight when his back is against the wall.

That's exactly what we need, isn't it? Isn't that exactly what we are asking every single guy on our football team to do? After all we have heard and seen about Ron Zook, do you have any questions in your mind that he won't be doing that?

Turning this program around isn't going to happen unless every facet of it is fighting, clawing and scratching at every opportunity they can get.

Sometimes you have to dig deep to find a positive. These last two weeks if you looked closely, it was right on the surface. Our coach is a fighter and I have no doubt that sooner rather than later that will translate to his football team and everyone associated with the Illinois football program.

Onto the Football Field--Mid-Season Review

The Illini sit 2-4 coming off of their bye week and are staring at a huge Homecoming showdown with the nationally ranked Penn State Nittany Lions.

Now, more than halfway through this 2005 football season, there are a few things that stick out with me.

Quarterback position:

A lot of Illinois fans spent the off-season worrying about the quarterback position, and I saw some people this week saying it was time for a change at the quarterback spot. I can tell you this: I will go to battle with Tim Brasic any day of the week!

He is one extremely tough and scrappy kid. Every game you can see he is improving, and even though he needs to improve his arm strength to compete against the speed of the Big Ten defensive backs, he is going to battle and scrap every second he is on the field (same type of attitude as his head coach). While it wasn't the safe play to attempt to lateral the ball to Derrick McPhearson against Iowa, I loved it! It showed me that he is going to do whatever it takes to try and make plays.

Was it frustrating to watch him make a great run and fumble the ball away in the fourth quarter of the Indiana game? Sure it was. Does Tim have to learn that there are some battles you fight and others you wave the white flag in? Of course, but that is the sign of a young player (playing in only his sixth college football game). Even with that, every one of those plays was made because he was scratching, clawing and trying to do anything to get the Illini in the end zone.

There is no doubt he will improve on his decision making as the season moves along, but the one thing you know you will get from Tim every weekend is fight--that's all I need to know.

Kyle Hudson

What can you say about "White Lightning"? I think we all underestimated right out of the gate how good Hudson could be right now, and so far, all he has done when the ball is thrown his way is make plays. His 41-yard diving reception in Iowa City (very reminiscent of the type of catches Brandon Lloyd used to make) was an exceptional catch, and if Hudson weren't held by the Iowa defender, he would have been celebrating his first collegiate touchdown.

It's scary to think how good he is going to be as he gets older and gets stronger. I would say he has been the early season surprise of the 2005 season and I am excited that we will have a chance to watch him in a lot of games over the next three seasons.

Justin Harrison

Harrison has been a big positive since he got back. He is a guy on the defense who can make plays, a big-hit" player. We are talking about a guy that most likely isn't 100 percent recovered from his off-season injury. Think about that for a second---here is a guy who isn't completely healthy but he is out there trying to help this team get a win. I like the message that sends to everyone on the team, and I bet Coach Zook does as well.

Harrison himself is still young and he is just going to keep getting better and better.

Illinois Defense

There is no question the defense has struggled at times during the first half of this season. The unit has not been able to consistently put pressure on the quarterback (which has made the job of the Illinois defensive backfield very hard), they have missed their share of tackles and haven't come up with a lot of takeaways.

But, sticking to the theme of improvement and things taking time, let's take a close look at the second half of the Indiana game. To his credit, Mike Mallory made some adjustments late in the first half and started to blitz people from all over and it made a huge difference.

The Illini defense didn't give up a point in the third quarter as their blitzing schemes had the Hoosiers scrambling. They caused three turnovers in the game (Alan Ball interception, James Cooper fumble recovery and the Leman strip at the goal line), and for stretches of the game they were flying around the field. Remember, it's about crawling before you can walk and walking before you can run.

It was great to see the coaching staff take a more aggressive approach and I expect to see a lot more of that in the second half of the season.

Still Bleeding Orange and Blue--Jared Gelfond

Bleeding Orange and Blue is the sole opinion of the author and in no way reflects the views of the UI Division of Intercollegiate Athletics and the University of Illinois.