Posted 9/1/2011 10:45 am
Updated 2 years ago
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Last year, Illinois opened the season in an NFL stadium against Missouri, a Big 12 team that has made a habit of making it to a bowl game.
This week, the Illini are getting ready for their opener against Arkansas State, a middling team from the Sun Belt Conference — an opponent that so far has underwhelmed the ticket-buying public. But Illinois' players, some of who were talking openly a couple of weeks ago about getting to a quality bowl, now say they're putting those thoughts aside to focus on the Red Wolves alone.
Call the Illini cautious as they get ready to open the season Saturday in Champaign.
"Eventually ,it is in the back of your mind," junior defensive lineman Whitney Mercilus said of bowl ambitions. "But the thing is you have to set it off to the side and focus on each opponent every week."
It would be hard to blame Mercilus and the rest of the Illini for sneaking a glance ahead on their schedule.
Arkansas State will be just the first of five teams to make their way to Memorial Stadium to open the 2011 season. The Illini won't go on the road until Oct. 8. And with games against South Dakota State and Western Michigan tucked in alongside Arizona State and Northwestern, Illinois could have three or four wins in its pocket before it leaves home.
Don't get Ron Zook wrong: The Illinois coach misses opening the season against Missouri, as the Illini had every year since 2007. The games were always big events, played before big-time crowds in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, usually with a national TV audience.
"There's no doubt in my mind that the Missouri game is an exciting game — it's a bowl-like atmosphere," Zook said Tuesday. "The downside of that is that we haven't done as well as we should have."
The Illini didn't win one of those games, opening every season in the hole. This time, they are coming off a 7-6 season that ended with a win over Baylor in the Texas Bowl.
Ticket sales for the game against Arkansas State — a team that went 4-8 last season but returns most of its starters — have been slow, just over 40,000 as of earlier this week in a stadium that seats about 60,000.
Zook says he doesn't care.
"I can't worry about that," he said. "I like the fact that (Illinois has) eight home games. I think people sometimes don't see that side."
Those eight dates at Memorial Stadium include three of the Illini's four toughest Big Ten opponents: Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State.
That, and the fact that the Illini finished strong last year with four wins in seven games, a stretch in which the offense averaged 42.2 points a game, has given Zook a little confidence alongside with the caution.
"We're going to put on an exciting show," he said. "I think we've got a chance to be a pretty good football team. The last time we put on our uniforms, we were pretty good."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.