CHAMPAIGN — Illinois football is feeling good about a 2-1 start heading into the bye week, but the Illini also are concerned about the growing injury report after Saturday's 28-22 win over Northern Illinois. The Illini are idle this week, then host No. 2 Ohio State on Oct. 2.
CHAMPAIGN — Illinois football is feeling good about a 2-1 start heading into the bye week, but the Illini also are a little concerned about the growing injury report.
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning called his side of the ball “extremely fragile” after the Illini defeated Northern Illinois 28-22 in a non-conference game Saturday. The Illini are idle this coming Saturday, then host No. 2 Ohio State on Oct. 2.
Q: What’s the goal for the Illini during the next three games?
A: Illinois will be a big underdog in games against the Buckeyes plus consecutive road dates with No. 23 Penn State and No. 25 Michigan State, even if there are issues for the Nittany Lions and Spartans.
Penn State is challenged on offense with questions lingering about freshman quarterback Rob Bolden, line play and the search for a lead running back. Michigan State faces uncertainty with coach Mark Dantonio recovering from a heart attack and a stent placed in a blocked blood vessel hours after knocking off Notre Dame Saturday night.
Nevertheless, that just doesn’t set up well for the Illini, who still are in the beginning stages of rebuilding under first-year coordinators Paul Petrino and Koenning. Taking Penn State and Michigan State into the fourth quarter, when anything could happen, would be considered making progress. Ohio State is, well, a prohibitive favorite.
Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State are old-school, physical football teams that will leave anyone sore, and surviving the three-game swing without more big additions to an already long injury report would also be a victory. Let’s be honest, Illinois’ hopes for reaching a lower-tier bowl rest on taking care of business in the second half of the season. Entering the second half of the season healthy would be a big plus.
Coach Ron Zook, who always is optimistic about his players’ recovery, expects wide receiver Eddie McGee (ankle) to play against the Buckeyes. Cornerback Terry Hawthorne (foot) isn’t likely to get much done this week besides working on the cardio machines. Tight end/fullback Zach Becker (foot) is slightly ahead of Hawthorne.
Guard Hugh Thornton, who was taken from the field on the motorized cart, suffered a strained neck, according to an MRI and CT scan, said Zook, who thought Thornton would play against Ohio State. Against NIU, safety Trulon Henry played with a sore shoulder and safety Tavon Wilson suffered from a kidney infection, Koenning said.
Q: Who is off to the best start among the Illini?
A: You wouldn’t be wrong by saying junior running back Mikel Leshoure, who surpassed 100 yards in each of the three games this season. He also became the first Illini ground gainer to post four consecutive games of 100 yards or more since Robert Holcombe in 1997. Leshoure had 180 yards, just four shy of his career high, against Northern Illinois and reached 100-plus for the sixth time in the last nine games (978 yards during the span).
Leshoure covers up a passing game that ranks last in the Big Ten (130 yards per game) after quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw for 70 yards against Northern Illinois.
But senior punter Anthony Santella moved up to first nationally in punting, and the Illini rank second nationally in net punting (43.7 yards per attempt) as the special teams have been special. Santella jumped one spot after averaging 48.7 on six attempts against Northern Illinois. He registered a career-long 67 yarder. In 15 attempts this season, he’s averaging 48.9 yards per punt.
Q: How will the Illini attack the week?
A: Illinois will practice Monday through Wedneday before giving the players Thursday through Saturday off. Zook was still unsure if Illinois would practice Sunday. The coaches will use the weekend to recruit. Zook may do a long-distance swing.
Even though the Illini could use the time to rest and heal, they will work hard on improvement in the middle of the week, Zook said, before a break for body and mind.
“I don’t want them in the off-week mode,” Zook said. “It’s important they take this week and use it. It’s not a vacation. The only difference between this week and game week is that you don’t have the added pressure of the game.”
John Supinie can be reached at 217-377-1977.