CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Back in August at the Big Ten Media Days, Illinois senior defensive lineman Clay Nurse sat at a circular table while surrounded by reporters and strongly defended his team when questioned about its past failures.
After allowing Nurse his say, he was asked, “But you do understand why there are criticisms?”
Nurse countered, “I understand the criticisms, but it doesn’t mean I have to listen to them.”
Where in most avenues of life, people benefit from being good listeners, Nurse and his teammates have succeeded by being awful ones. While the media and fans have harped upon Illinois’ dismal 2009 and predicted another disappointing season in Champaign, the Illini muted everyone outside of their program and held strong to a positive tone within their own doors. The message within was they could compete with any team in the country.
“Coach [Ron] Zook told us in the spring when we were about to start spring ball, all that matters is who’s in our locker room,” Illinois junior safety Trulon Henry said. “It doesn’t matter what these guys think or those guys think. All that matters is what’s in our locker room.”
So when Illinois hung with No. 2 Ohio State from the opening kickoff until the final minutes in a 24-13 loss on Saturday, the Illini weren’t shocked. They knew who was, though.
“I know you are all surprised,” Illinois Ron Zook said to the media after the game. “We’re not surprised. We expected to go in there and compete. We knew it was going to be a tough game. We knew it was going to be a hard-fought game. We knew it was going to be a 60-minute game. We expected to be in it in the end, and we were.”
That confidence and those expectations were displayed by Zook’s players from the opening drive on.
The game began with Illinois’ defense halting Ohio State and its Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Terrelle Pryor on three consecutive plays, which included a sack by Nurse, and forced them to punt.
It was then Illinois redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase’s time to take the field. Being his first career Big Ten game and the first time he had faced a nationally-ranked opponent, Scheelhaase would have been forgiven if he had succumbed to the big-game nerves and struggled on his first drive.
Scheelhaase’s emotions led him to do just the opposite. He marched the Illini down the field 55 yards in nine plays and gave Illinois a 7-0 lead on the Buckeyes. On the drive, Scheelhaase threw for 14 yards, caught a pass for 23 yards during which he juked one defender and rushed for a three-yard touchdown.
“From the first game through this game, I still haven’t been nervous walking out there,” said Scheelhaase, who completed 12-of-22 passes for 109 yards and one interception and ran for 32 yards and a touchdown.
“Obviously you’re excited about the opportunity to play a top team in the country. It’s not every day that you’re put in that position. It’s really a position that’s kind of unfamiliar to me coming from my high school days. We were never looked at as an underdog. It’s kind of feeling that got me going all week.”
Scheelhaase wasn’t content with just competing with Ohio State on Saturday. He felt the Illini had allowed a massive opportunity pass them by.
“The frustrating part is when you’re in a heavyweight bout with the No. 2 team in the country, and you get to the late rounds of the match, and you don’t find a way to get that knockout punch in. That’s kind of what we were looking for. We’re in there fighting it out, throwing punch for punch. That’s a rough feeling when you don’t come out in the end.”
Henry was just as disappointed. In his mind, he would rather have seen a lopsided score than the close one that actually occurred.
“That hurts more than being blown out,” Henry said. “When you think you got it and you got a hold of it and its slip out of there, you’re going to think about this all the way to Thursday.”
Much of Illinois’ postgame interviews involved discussion about moral victories and the positives the Illini could take away from competing with the nation’s No. 2 team.
When Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was asked his thoughts, he wasn’t so quick to jump on the happy band wagon. He wasn’t so sure playing in a tight game with Ohio State translated to future success for Illinois.
Koenning remembered what he felt like when he was cut as a player by the Denver Broncos. Shortly after, he had another opportunity with the Green Bay Packers, and he foresaw himself being cut again. Instead of sticking it through and seeing what actually would happen, Koenning opted to retire and not have to deal with that pain again.
“I don’t think that would have happened if the first one never happened,” Koenning said. “This team lost a lot of games last year. Everyone has the feeling of losing in their system, and that can be hard to get out. We have to start winning some of these games. We need to start finishing.”
That is something the Illini will likely listen to.