CHAMPAIGN — Ron Zook never hides his positive feelings about Joe Paterno. Even when the Penn State coach is trying to extend the Illinois losing streak to three games.
“It’s a great honor and a privilege to play against him,” Zook said during his Sunday teleconference. “There are three or four guys in the last 50, 60 years you can talk about what they’ve done for college football to put college football where it is. If he’s not the greatest, he’s one of them. Coaching at his age now is unheard of.”
Paterno is looking for win No. 409, which will top Eddie Robinson as the most for any Division I coach. St. John’s (Minn.) coach John Gagliardi holds the all-division record and continues to coach with 480 wins.
Last time Zook coached against Paterno, he got the win. The 2010 victory was the first ever for Illinois at State College.
A scheduling quirk has the Illini going back to State College for a second consecutive season. Zook thinks last year’s experience will help his team Saturday.
“Regardless of what they hear all week, they know it can be done because we did it,” Zook said.
“We can walk around feeling sorry for ourselves. First of all, no one cares. No. 2, it’s not going to help us.”
Zook was home in time Saturday to see Wisconsin’s last-second loss to Michigan State. The Spartans won on a Hail Mary pass from Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol that bounced off another Michigan State receiver.
“It was kind of a wing and a prayer and God heard the prayer, I guess,” Zook said.
How do you defend that play?
“Most people have a strategy that they work,” Zook said. “We have one that we work, both offensively and defensively.”
Wisconsin used receiver Jared Abbrederis to try to jump and knock the ball away. But he appeared to jump early.
“What you’re trying to do is knock the ball down,” Zook said. “What you worry about is exactly what happened, the ball getting tipped into somebody else’s hands.”
BACK TO WORK
Zook spent part of Sunday reminding his players and coach that the team is 6-2.
“We’ve done some things that are good and we’ve got to continue to do things that are good,” Zook said.
Zook said he doesn’t plan any major changes for this week.
“If I had the answer, it would be easy,” Zook said. “Everybody’s got opinions. I don’t know that there is a reason to change.”
Zook said he doesn’t believe the players have lost confidence.
“They’ve watched the tape,” Zook said. “They know it’s a play here and a play there. It’s not every play.”
Redshirt freshman Simon Cvijanovic played most of Saturday’s game at offensive tackle in place of struggling Michael Heitz. In the first seven plays, Heitz had a false start, gave up a sack and had another mistake.
“I was very, very proud of Simon,” Zook said. “Michael’s done a great job. I think he’s maybe hit the wall a little bit. Now that he’s going to be able to have a little pressure off of him, he’ll come back quick. I think he’ll handle it extremely well.”
NOT SO SPECIAL
The Illinois special teams had a punt attempt smothered and finished minus-5 in punt return yardage. Illinois is 116th nationally in punt returns, 118th in kickoff returns, 102nd in net punting and 100th in kickoff coverage.