Underdog role works well for the Illini

Times Staff Writer

CHAMPAIGN, Ill.--The Illinois coaches and players know they will be underdogs when they face USC in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. They know some fans were hoping for a different matchup.

It’s the same old story for a Cinderella team that went 9-3, including an upset victory over Ohio State, after winning a total of four games the previous two seasons.

“We’ve been very comfortable with the underdog role, to say the least,” center Ryan McDonald said. “We’re constantly having to prove ourselves.”


The Illini had a media day Sunday before launching into a week of bowl game practices. The word “respect” kept popping up as much of the discussion centered on whether 13th-ranked Illinois can keep pace with the sixth-ranked Trojans.

Illinois Coach Ron Zook said he has also heard rumblings about the quality of play in the Big Ten this fall.

“Obviously there are things being said,” Zook told reporters. “I think it’s important that we go and prove to people that the Big Ten Conference plays some pretty good football.”

For now, Illinois is more concerned with getting back in top shape after ending the regular season with a victory over Northwestern a month ago.

Zook, who acknowledged his players are a little rusty, called around to other coaches whose teams have dealt with long layoffs. He found that it’s a balance between keeping healthy and keeping sharp. So the week will be split between installing a game plan and scrimmaging.

“You’ve got to hit,” Zook said. “How much is enough and how much is too much?”

If nothing else, the time off has given a number of players a chance to rest nagging injuries. Freshman wide receiver Arrelious Benn has been playing with a dislocated right shoulder and will need surgery in the off-season.

“I’m used to it by now,” he said. “There have been games when I popped it back in myself.”

Players said they are growing more and more eager to leave for Southern California -- and football is only part of the reason.

Over the weekend, a steady snow fell on this college town three hours south of Chicago. By Sunday afternoon, the skies had cleared but gusts forced the temperature below 20 degrees. As if the respect factor weren’t enough, it seems the approach of winter provided the team with even more incentive to win during the season’s final weeks.

“First, we wanted to get to a bowl game,” defensive tackle David Lindquist said. “Then, it was like, ‘We’ve got to go somewhere warm.’ ”