Illinois football notebook: Playing for survival helps Illini

John Supinie

Back home for three football games in Memorial Stadium over the next four weekends, Illinois learned something while splitting games at Penn State and Michigan.

After two melancholy non-conference victories at home over Eastern Illinois and Louisiana-Lafayette, Illinois played for survival, coach Ron Zook said, while finding another gear emotionally in a 38-24 loss at Penn State and a 45-20 victory at Michigan.

Illinois (3-2 overall, 1-1 in the Big Ten Conference) wants to find that same intensity while hosting Minnesota (5-1, 1-1) in the homecoming game Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN).

"When you play those two teams on the road, you better have effort or you get buried,'' Zook said. "We better have that same kind of effort for the rest of the season. For us to be the kind of team we want to be, it's important to have that kind of effort.''

Minnesota would become bowl eligible with a victory, a big rebound from last year's 1-11 record. Meanwhile, Zook pleaded even Illini fans to bring some extra enthusiasm to the stadium.

"We've gone on the road the last two weeks and played in big environments,'' said tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. "Going to Penn State and Michigan, you have to up the level of play. One of our goals is to be undefeated at home. It's going to be a big job for us this weekend to keep them from getting their bowl berth at our place.''

Special teams

Zook wasn't against juggling the lineup on his kickoff coverages after allowing returns of 36, 33 and 31 yards early against the Wolverines.

Kicker Michael Cklamovski replaced Matt Eller on kickoffs in the first half at Michigan, providing more hang time. From there, Michigan didn't return a kickoff more than 24 yards in five attempts.

Zook wasn't sure if Cklamovski would handle kickoffs against the Gophers.

"If you go back and look at the first three kickoff returns, they weren't very good,'' Zook said. "I'm going to keep changing. I will find 10 guys who will run down the field, a kicker who will kick it as deep as he can get it. If it takes me to the last game, it will take me to the last game.

"On paper, the personnel running down there are probably better than the personnel running down there last year. I want guys who are 5 flat that run 4.5 down there. I don't want 4.5 guys running 5 flat down there.''


Sophomore Martez Wilson and freshman Russ Ellington shared duties at weakside linebacker against Michigan, and Zook liked what he saw from Wilson, considered a star in the making who endured rough games against Missouri and Penn State.

"Everybody wants him to be All-Pro right now,'' Zook said. "I do. He does, too. Everybody matures at a different rate. When he puts pressure on himself, it's like driving a car with the emergency brake on.''


- Zook and Penn State's Joe Paterno are the only active Big Ten coaches with victories at Michigan and Ohio State.

- Illinois quarterback Juice Williams became the second player in conference history to post 300 yards passing and 100 rushing in a Big Ten game and the third player overall. Only Michigan State's Drew Stanton also did it against a conference foe, passing for 308 and running for 102 against Minnesota in 2004.

John Supinie can be reached at