"We are coming off a week where we had the opportunity to get our players rested and let them prepare for mid-term exams. The bye week enable our players to get some much-needed rest after the tough six-game stretch and it helped heal some of our injuries. The week was very beneficial and gave us the opportunity to work on some things from a correction standpoint that need to be made.
"We are looking at an Illinois team that is vastly improved. They looked like a team this past weekend that felt the aftereffects of a disheartening loss in overtime against Indiana. Illinois looked like they had the Indiana game won and unfortunately lost in overtime. I know Ron Turner is a good coach who has an excellent coaching staff. Illinois is young team that is playing very hard and I don't doubt that they will come in and play us hard this week. Our major concern is how we play and how we respond to the disappointment associated with a loss and to an off week. I think the other side of the coin is if you come back with intensity and the execution needed to be successful. We are going to find a lot out about our football team this weekend."
About the Big Ten Conference ... "Because the Big Ten is so competitive, you're seeing some tremendous games. Almost every away game is a difficult game because they're all sold out and the crowds are enthusiastic. I think that's one of the great things about Big Ten football -- you have the opportunity to play in front of crowds that are excited to cheer for their team. Every away game is a challenge and that's something special because a lot of conferences don't have that element.
"The schedule that we've faced in the first six games is about as tough as it gets. The only game in that first six that we were able to get a handle on was the Rice game, and that was difficult because of the mental and physical preparation we put on ourselves to defend the wishbone offense. I think what happens is that eventually you get into a game where you are not as emotionally ready as your opponent. When you find yourself in that game you need to find a way to win. When you can't, you're going to get beat. I think that every team that's in a championship race knows it is going to happen, but sometimes there's nothing you can do about it."
About young players seeing action in practice during a bye week ... "The guys who have made a contribution on special teams are B.J. Askew and Charles Drake. They have done a very good job. Ronald Bellamy and Tyrece Butler have made excellent progress. There are a number of other guys who have made tremendous progress and have shown their competitiveness. Our freshmen class has shown that they're a very close-knit group, which is something I feel is important. They work hard, have displayed excellent attitudes and have played roles in helping prepare this team for each game.
"Norman Boebert has put on about 15 pounds and is a very tough, competitive player. The running backs are learning and continue to make progress every day. Ryan Beard had a shoulder injury early on that set him back and I think that affected his conditioning. Brent Cummings had an injury that set him out for awhile. We have had some guys hurt with injuries but had some other guys who have contributed. Carl Diggs has shown great promise at linebacker."
About the running back position ... "B.J. Askew and Charles Drake had really good weeks of practice. We had to take B.J. to the hospital yesterday. I haven't heard anything definite, but our doctors were worried about his appendix. That would reset the national record for most appendectomies. I am hoping that's not the case but we'll have to wait and see the report from the doctors."
About not facing Illinois for two years ... "Well, we have two classes that have not played against Illinois. I think most coaches would like to play every team in the conference, but because of the configuration we're not allowed to do that. The preparation is certainly different because we haven't faced them in two years. Two weeks ago, we knew every player on the Michigan State team and vice versa. There will be a lot of unfamiliar faces opposite us this weekend and that will be the same for them. From that standpoint it is different. Tape can be deceiving because a player can be a little bit faster, a little bit tougher and bigger than you expect him to be."
Are you enjoying this Big Ten race ... "This is the most balanced that I've seen in awhile. There is one team that hasn't lost and four teams with one loss and two or three teams with two losses. Anything is possible. There are some really big games coming. Every game that you play is a championship contest. If you have two losses, you're hanging in there. Everyone is fighting for position and there are some really good matchups this weekend -- Penn State at Purdue, Michigan State at Wisconsin, Ohio State at Minnesota and us at home against Illinois."
Will you enjoy this race ... "One of my heroes, Winston Churchill, said, 'When you're going through hell, keep going.' And losing is hell, and when you're coming off a loss that isn't any fun. You better respond. You better not feel sorry for yourself. You better not be pointing the finger at someone else. You better not be making excuses. You better being doing the things that you need to do to get through it or else you're going to lose again."
Will the injury to B.J. Askew keep him out of this week's game ... "I hope not, but we are still uncertain. I received some positive feedback this morning but something like that does take a few days."
On the running game ... "I think a running game is a team thing. It's how well you play together up front, how well and how hard you run the football. To run the football effectively, you need to have a will and a determination as a team and coaching staff. If you don't have the will, you are not going to be successful. The one thing that I have is a desire to run the football. If you can't run the ball, you are going to end up in a lot of third-and-eight and third-and-10 situations. Your chances of being successful are going to drop if you are put into those type of situations on a regular basis.
"I think we have the guys up front to have a good line and that we have players with great character, toughness and athletic ability. I am confident that our guys are going to step up and become the type of line that we want them to be. I think it has been a very, very banged-up line. We are going to run the football or we're going to die trying."
During the off week, did you work on reapplying some of the fundamentals to your running game or is it just tweaking a few areas of the line ... "It think it's a combination of both. Obviously, we are very young on one side of offensive line and we need to take care of some of the fundamentals. The fundamentals are coming off the ball low, sustaining a block until the whistle blows and making sure that we're blocking the right man. Those are the things that we are trying to emphasize every week, but the critical issue up front is getting movement on the line. Someone is going to win up front every week, either the offensive or defensive line. When you don't get movement, you're not going to run the ball effectively. I am confident that we are going to show the determination and drive to run the ball."
Are you happy with play of running back Anthony Thomas ... "Well, I made a statement after the MSU game that we didn't run the ball hard. I am not just talking about offensively, we didn't do it defensively. Anthony has been banged up and he can't be expected to carry the load. This is a team dilemma. The coaches, running backs, offensive line and offensive unit must take responsibility for the running game. We are not as effective as we want to be."
About expectations for quarterback Drew Henson this week ... "Drew made a great play in the second quarter of the Michigan State game. He made a great read and great throw. Drew didn't play as well in the third quarter as he would have liked. I think that is true of a lot of guys on our football team. I would hope that every guy feels that way -- that they can't wait to get on the field. Generally, that's the way that any team or coach feels after a loss. You want to coach better and play better and get the bad taste out of your mouth."
About the difference between the Purdue and Michigan State games ... "I think every week is a new test. The issue is that you need to compete every time the ball goes into the air. We didn't compete as well for the ball as we were capable of against Michigan State. I think we gave up too many big plays against Michigan State because we were out of position. Some of it had to do with MSU's execution, but there were too many cases where we didn't knock the ball away. That's a challenge for us. I don't think we played like we're capable and I certainly expect us to play better."
About fullback Aaron Shea ... "Aaron is tremendous athlete. I want to find ways to get him the ball. He is an outstanding receiver and a great team player. Aaron is willing to do anything to help your team win. He makes the tough blocks and does the little things to make a team successful. He is a joy to coach because he is a fun guy to be around. He likes to win and takes great pride in knowing what to do and how to do it. He takes great pride in doing things to the best of his abilities. He is a wonderful kid and brings a great deal to our football team. I like finding ways to get him the ball because he can run very well. If you make a mistake on him, he can hurt you big."
About Illinois quarterback Kurt Kittner ... "He is a young guy. He is just a few (passing) yards shy of 1,200 on the season. The most impressive thing to me is the fact that he threw his first interception last Saturday. That's special. You have to have a guy who has a lot of poise and patience. He makes a lot of good decisions and I think he has improved. He is going to be a very good quarterback in this conference. Illinois' offense is not very easy to run and I think he has done an excellent job."
About the Illinois defense ... "They have an outstanding defensive coordinator, Tim Kish. He is a bright, young coach who has that defense playing very hard. He is not a big blitz guy but he always has them in a good position. The defensive line always plays hard and makes big plays. They were very impressive against Michigan State and did a good job against Indiana for a long time."
What is your definition of the balanced offense that you desire ... "In a perfect world, it's having equal number of yards rushing and passing. Against seven-man fronts, that's what you can shoot for, realistically. When teams begin putting eight and nine men in the box, you should be able to hit more plays deep. I think you need to be realistic. If they overload you, you're not going to be able to run for big numbers unless you break a few big gainers."
About coming back from a loss ... "I think this team has great pride. There is a sting that comes with losing and a certain amount of misery associated with losing. Along with those things, I think there is a resolve to play better with a great intensity and focus. I believe we will bounce back and play with great intensity. If you don't play with intensity in football, you don't have a chance to be good. Lack of intensity is a very visible thing and it shows up on the defensive side in terms of missed tackles. We had 16 missed tackles against Michigan State. Any way you cut it that's an intensity factor. When you don't run the football and have the capabilities to do so, that's a lack of intensity. I think intensity is emotional. Those first five games of the year, we played with great intensity. It's a challenge every week and we need to raise our intensity level."
About the play of cornerback Todd Howard ... "I think he has done some very good things. He is still learning and will continue to get better. To have a great defense, it begins with tackling and not giving up big plays. Todd has made a lot of progress. He plays with a lot of enthusiasm and intensity. I think he has grown significantly and gained confidence. I think he is capable of being an outstanding football player."
About Hayden Epstein's 56-yard field goal into the wind at Michigan State ... "I will tell you that is one of the greatest kicks I have ever seen. It may be the best kick that I've ever seen. That was a 56-yard field goal into the wind. If you were down on the field, you would have known how much the wind really was blowing. I almost decided against it because I knew that if we missed they would have tremendous field position. There is something about Hayden Epstein that just amazes me. He has tremendous confidence in his abilities. If the ball was on the 50-yard line, he'd tell you he could make it. Hayden knew I had reservations, but he gave me confidence he'd make it. I think he is capable of setting the collegiate record some day. If the wind is right and the situation presents itself, he is capable of setting the record."
About Cory Sargent's punting at MSU ... "That was the one area I was most concerned with heading into the game. His first couple of punts were just average and then he started really kicking the ball. It was tremendous. He had excellent hang time and excellent yardage after the first few. That is what he is a capable of. We have the capabilities to have an excellent kicking game if he continues to kick like he did in the second half of the MSU game and if our guys continue kicking field goals like they have."
Contact: David Ablauf, Jim Schneider (734) 763-4423