Rossow: Illini need fast start in bad way
Perhaps the players should charge onto the field backward.
Maybe run over and rub Zuppke Rock for good luck.
How about not shaving for the rest of the week? Coaches included.
"Anything to win that first game," cornerback Trevor Starghill said. "We have to get this one off our back, set the tempo."
The first of many speed bumps facing first-year Illinois coach Ron Turner is this: When it comes to season openers, his team has the sorriest track record in the Big Ten.
They''ve been embarrassed, losing 31-3 to Missouri in 1993. They''ve been frustrated, losing 10-9 to Washington State in ''94. They''ve been manhandled, losing 38-14 to Michigan in ''95. And they''ve been unfortunate, playing a relatively solid game in last year''s 20-8 loss at Michigan.
"It''s a hump we haven''t been able to get over," offensive lineman Brent Taylor said. "Once you get over it, you keep climbing."
At Michigan or Ohio State, a class is disappointed if it does not make a Rose Bowl in its career. At Illinois, an opening win will do at this point. Taylor and other fifth-year seniors have started 0-1 each time.
Headed in the wrong direction
That''s the longest skid in the Big Ten. By far. Wisconsin and Purdue have lost their most recent openers. Everybody else is riding some sort of winning streak.
Ohio State has won 11 straight, Penn State six straight. Even hapless Indiana has won five in a row (the UI might want to start scheduling like the Hoosiers do).
Taylor, a heavy hitting slow-pitch softball player, likens the UI''s plight to a team losing the first game of a 60-team softball tournament. To get out of the losers'' bracket, a team must then win 10 games in a row. Those are long odds.
"It''s so much better when you''re on top at the beginning," cornerback James Williams said. "You lose that first game, you get doubters. ''Are we any good?''
"You win that first game, you don''t have to worry about a letdown."
The Illini worried too much about Michigan. That''s the word from Starghill, who thinks the focus the last two preseason camps was misdirected.
"They wanted to beat Michigan so bad, they forgot about us," he said.
Turner has taken a different approach. He has not talked much about Southern Miss to this point. He has not ordered one of his walk-ons to dress up like a Golden Eagle for all the Illini to sack. He has not cracked a single joke about Hattiesburg.
"I couldn''t even tell you their school colors," Williams said. "I''m serious."
Tall order for Illinois
Southern Miss dresses in black and gold. And the Golden Eagles can play. Don''t be shocked if they stay with defending champion Florida today. For at least one quarter.
All of which makes the UI''s quest for a fast start a tad tricky. Turns out it picked the wrong team from Mississippi.
By no means has Turner conceded the opener. At the same time, he speaks in long-term tones, making it clear an opening-night loss would not stain his blueprint for an Illini resurgence.
But with ticket sales lagging, confidence sagging and a student body simmering over athletic fees, there is no better time for the UI to break through.
Beat Southern Miss, tear down a goal post and move on to Louisville. In Starghill''s words, set the tone.
"That''s our attitude," Taylor said. "We don''t want people down on us."
But that''s where most fans are until convinced otherwise. The sour taste from last year still lingers.
At least for another week.
Jim Rossow is sports editor of The News-Gazette.