CHAMPAIGN – The voters in The Associated Press and USA Today coaches' polls weren't as alarmed about Saturday's Illinois-Louisiana-Lafayette game as the players and staff.
Illinois moved up two spots, to No. 22, in the AP poll. And after being out of the coaches' poll for a week, the Illini returned at No. 23.
The Illini got helped in the polls from losses by Arizona State, Fresno State and California.
Illini coach Ron Zook wasn't celebrating a jump in the polls Sunday. Instead, he was looking for answers to a less-than-stellar performance by his offense against the Ragin' Cajuns. Illinois gained 341 yards against one of the worst defensive units in the country.
"You leave about three touchdowns out there and I think it becomes a different game," Zook said. "You have a few penalties you can't have.
"The good thing is the defense is finally playing the way we're capable of playing."
On Sunday, there weren't a lot of smiling faces at the Illinois football offices.
"It's like a morgue over here," Zook said. "I said (to the staff), 'You know what, fellas, we could have lost the game. I guarantee two years ago we would have lost the game.' Do we have some work to do? Absolutely. But I don't think anybody on this staff or on this team is ready to throw the towel in."
Good timing. Zook said he's happy to have an off week now. The Illini don't play again until they travel to Penn State on Sept. 27.
"We're going to get some work done," Zook said. "Two things, they're going to have an opportunity to get away from it a little bit, which I think is good. And No. 2, we're going to have a chance to get better. We're not just going to go out there and lollygag around."
There might be some open competitions.
"If they don't want to do it the way we want to do it, then they won't be out there," Zook said. "I can assure you that. It's kind of like we lost the eye of the tiger a little bit.
"The game of football is very, very hard. That's why you see teams go up and down. You look at Ohio State (Saturday) night. That was a pretty good football team. What happened there? They didn't play the way they were capable of playing as well."
Palmer update. Zook said offensive tackle Ryan Palmer will have a pin inserted in his broken foot, an injury suffered Saturday.
"It may be a little bit longer than Jeff Cumberland's because it was actually broken, where Jeff's was a stress fracture," Zook said.
Any other injuries?
"Just hurt pride," Zook said. "That kind of stuff."
Dangerous place. During Saturday's win against Michigan, Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis suffered torn knee ligaments when he was hit from behind by one of his players. Weis was following the ball and didn't see the oncoming player.
Zook has been hit on the sidelines, though nothing as severe as what happened to Weis.
"That's why when you see me, I don't want people around me," Zook said. "I don't want people standing behind me. I've got to have an escape route."
Zook said the punts are the most dangerous.
"I've actually run out on the field to keep from getting run over," Zook said. "When I see the ball coming, I get the (heck) out of the way.
"The sideline, that's dangerous. Sometimes you'll see little kids down there. It just scares me to death."
Varsity (Room) blues. Heavy rains Saturday and Sunday caused flooding in the Varsity Room at the south end of Memorial Stadium. That's where the Illinois football players, and other athletes, eat their daily meals.
Tour time. The Illinois players will get a look at the new west side of Memorial Stadium on Tuesday. During an off week, Zook plans to take the players on a tour of the new facilities, which includes luxury suites, club seating and a new press area.
Every game has a defining moment when the outcome is established. Here is the play from Saturday’s Illinois-Louisiana-Lafayette game:
Illinois leads 3-0 midway through the first quarter, but Lousiana-Lafayette has already shown the ability to move the ball. The first drive for the Ragin’ Cajuns went to the Illinois 35 and ended when Vontae Davis forced a fumble and made the recovery. The confident Louisiana-Lafayette offense starts its second drive at its own 20.
A pair of carries by workhorse Tyrell Fenroy, the first for 6 yards and the second for 2, sets up the Ragin’ Cajuns for a third and 2 at the Illinois 28. With Michael Desormeaux one of the top running quarterbacks in the nation, the Illini figure he might be keeping the ball. The Illini defense stacks the line, anticipating a power run. Linebacker Brit Miller moves close.
It’s a good guess. Sure enough, Desormeaux tries to gain the 2 yards himself. But the Illini defensive line holds Desormeaux up. Miller grabs the quarterback and, in a quick move the team practices often in practice, he strips the ball away from Desormeaux. Miller breaks into the clear, getting an escort from cornerback Vontae Davis. Miller crosses the goalline and does a somersault to celebrate his first college touchdown. Matt Eller’s extra point makes it 10-0.
Miller’s touchdown is one of just two for the Illini all day. Miller and the Illinois defense continues its fine work, slowing the Ragin’ Cajuns enough to hold onto the lead. Garrett Edwards recovers an onside kick with 18 seconds left to clinch the Illinois victory and move the team above .500 going into its off week. Miller finishes with 13 tackles, tying Vontae Davis for game-high honors.
THE RECORD (2-1)
Missouri 52 Illinois 42
Illinois 47 Eastern Illinois 21
Illinois 20 La.-Lafayette 17
Sept. 27 at Penn State, 7 p.m. (ABC)
Oct. 4 at Michigan, 2:30 p.m.
Oct. 11 vs. Minnesota, 11 a.m.
Oct. 18 vs. Indiana, 7 p.m.
Oct. 25 at Wisconsin, 11 a.m.
Nov. 1 vs. Iowa, TBA
Nov. 8 vs. W. Michigan@, 11 a.m.
Nov. 15 vs. Ohio State, TBA
Nov. 22 at Northwestern, TBA
@ = at Detroit
Illinois takes Saturday off before visiting Penn State on Sept. 27. A quick read on the Nittany Lions:
Penn State took no pity on failing Syracuse coach Greg Robinson, stuffing the Orange 55-13 at the Carrier Dome. The Nittany Lions defense didn’t allow a first down in the opening quarter. Penn State quarterback Darryl Clark threw a pair of early touchdown passes. Pat Devlin matched him in the second quarter with two more scores. The Nittany Lions added a fifth touchdown pass in the final quarter.
WHO TO WATCH
The elderly gentleman pacing the Penn State sidelines. Tell us if you’ve heard this one before, but this might be the last time Joe Paterno coaches against Illinois. Of course, we’ve said that the last five games. All the legend has done is win 375 games in 43 years. His age hasn’t tempered Paterno’s enthusiasm. In fact, he seems even more animated on the sidelines now.
WHERE TO WATCH
The game will be on ABC and shown to a large part of the nation.
REASON TO WATCH
It’s a critical game for Illinois, which looked less than inspired against Louisiana-Lafayette. With a game at Michigan the following week, the Illini need a good start if they have any hopes of winning the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions are trying to bounce back from a 2007 season that left them much less than satisfied. There is great pressure on the team to contend for the Big Ten and it looks like Paterno has the players to compete.
BY THE NUMBERS
Illinois has a name for the home of Penn State and it doesn’t start with “Happy.” Illinois has never won at Beaver Stadium, losing five games by a combined 138-58. Ron Zook is 1-2 against the Nittany Lions, the first loss a 63-10 decision in Champaign his first season.
THE RECORD (3-0)
Penn State 66 Co. Carolina 10
Penn State 45 Oregon State 14
Penn State 55 Syracuse 13
Saturday vs. Temple
Sept. 27 vs. Illinois
Oct. 4 at Purdue
Oct. 11 at Wisconsin
Oct. 18 vs. Michigan
Oct. 25 at Ohio State
Nov. 8 at Iowa
Nov. 15 vs. Indiana
Nov. 22 vs. Michigan State