Battered and bruised Illinois squad awaits Gophers

Aaron Blake

After Illinois’ game Saturday at Michigan, a beaten and bruised Illini team can now add “belittled” to the list.

A 74-yard punt return by the Wolverines’ Steve Breaston was the focal point of the game’s highlights, and the ESPN analysts took great pleasure in counting the Illini’s missed tackles. They said it looked like the tacklers were quitting.

“We didn’t quit on Saturday, and we won’t quit,” Illinois senior safety Marc Jackson said Monday. “This team is not made up of quitters.”

Jackson played off the analysis, but he knows his team has not given the network many positive things to say about Illinois (1-7, 0-4 Big Ten) heading into its match-up with Minnesota (6-2, 2-2) at 11 a.m. Saturday in Champaign, Ill.

With the struggles his players have endured this season, coach Ron Turner knew he needed to make sure their heads were in the right place going into their final four games.

So he held a meeting Sunday.

“We just talked about the attitude that we still need to keep,” Jackson said. “We still have four games left, and he just wanted to see where our mindset was – which is understandable. A lot of teams would just concede the season. But that’s not what we’re about.

“Of course the season’s not going the way we wanted it to go. But nobody’s giving up and nobody’s backing down.”

The season took another joyride down dead man’s curve Tuesday when Turner announced that starting quarterback Jon Beutjer – the top passer in the Big Ten a season ago – will miss the remainder of the season with a herniated disk in his back.

Starting freshman tailback Ibrahim “E.B.” Halsey will also sit out Saturday with a knee injury.

A 2001 Big Ten championship and Sugar Bowl appearance suddenly seem like ancient history as Illinois spirals toward the bottom instead.

Ranked last in the Big Ten in both scoring defense and scoring offense, the I1llini will attempt to turn their season around, minus one of their lone bright spots and team leaders in Beutjer.

Freshman Chris Pazan started in Beutjer’s place Saturday, going 11-for-23 for 100 yards and an interception. Senior Dustin Ward saw action late in the game, going 5-for-5 for 63 yards.

“That’s a tough straw to draw to get a lot of your first action against the Michigan Wolverines in the big house,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said. “That would be tough for anybody.”

Turner said both Pazan and Ward will likely see action this Saturday, and Mason said his team will prepare for Illinois’ offensive scheme because of this uncertainty.

Minnesota is also reeling a bit after dropping two straight losses to nationally ranked teams. On Oct. 10, the Gophers lost 38-35 to No. 13 Michigan before losing 44-38 to No. 11 Michigan State last Saturday.

Whatever the case, both teams see Saturday as a good opportunity to get on the right track and find something out about themselves.

“We’ve got good kids with good character,” Turner said. “We’re not out there (during practice) all chipper and joking around. But we’re not totally in the tank either. The only way we can get out of this is by working our way out of it. I think our kids believe we’re going to do it. We need to have some kind of success to spark them.”