CHAMPAIGN — Jonathan Brown wasn’t about to divulge details.
But the Illinois senior linebacker, along with senior receiver Steve Hull, generated the idea of a brief players-only meeting Sunday afternoon. A few text messages and phone calls later to seniors like Ryan Lankford, Miles Osei and Nathan Scheelhaase helped gather the team for the 10-minute meeting.
“It was a good mood,” Brown said. “But we like to keep everything in there.”
It’s the second straight year Illinois has held such a meeting. And second straight season Illinois is scuffling going into the final three weeks of the season, with little to no chance of playing in a bowl game. Ohio State brings a No. 3 ranking and perfect 9-0 record to town this weekend. Chances of playing in the BCS title game are still intact for the Buckeyes. Chances for Illinois to play past November are fleeting at best.
“We’re not naive,” Hull said. “We understand the team that’s coming in here, and we understand the circumstances we’re in now. We know that it’s very easy for younger guys like we have and guys that might be role players to bag it up. We talked about that, and we made sure that everybody knew that this is a serious game. We’re going to fight and compete just as much as the first game of the season. I think the confidence is high.”
Hull and Brown were in the stadium early Sunday morning watching film of the Indiana loss when the concept of bringing the team together surfaced. The message to many players, particularly the Illini, was to the point: don’t give up on the season.
“When I talk to the young guys, I try to keep them level-headed,” Hull said. “Really, they need to soak in every opportunity they have. I know some of the guys might be getting frustrated if they’re not playing as much as they want or they’re not playing at all, but they really need to understand that learning is one of the key components of being a great player.”
Illinois will need great performances against the Buckeyes if it hopes to pull off the biggest home upset this century.
“I don’t think our kids are tight,” Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “Our young kids aren’t. They’re too young to be tight. I know the guys who have been around to play the Ohio States of the world, they’ll be excited. There’s always a David beating Goliath story every year, so this will be our opportunity.”
Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit echoed Banks’ sentiment.
“When you go in there on Sunday and look at the kids’ faces, they’re looking for direction,” he said. “How are you going to handle it? Instead of going in there and tearing them down, we’ll pick out a few plays that we need to fix. I think they appreciate it. Nate told me, ‘Coach, we were never expected on offense to go out there and perform at a high level every play. That’s difficult for some of us. You’ve put so much high expectations out there that we’re trying to meet it, and then if we meet it, we know we need to go one step further.’ As long as I’m coaching and I’m around the kids, I’m fine. I don’t have any problems at all.”