Illinois learns to move beyond ups and downs

November, 10, 2009
11/10/09
11:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Clay Nurse is not a golfer, but he borrows a term from links lingo to pinpoint Illinois' current state of mind.

"There’s no mulligans in football," the Illini junior defensive end said. "You can’t go back and do it over."

 
  AP Photo/Paul Battaglia
  Illinois defensive end Clay Nurse is coming off a career-best performance for the Illini.
Nurse first heard the saying from fellow Illinois defensive lineman Doug Pilcher, and it has quickly caught on. For the Illini, there's no point in looking back on both the good and the bad this season.

Illinois has won back-to-back Big Ten games for the first time since 2007, when it rattled off four consecutive victories to reach the Rose Bowl. The team's slim chances for a bowl appearance remain alive with games left against Northwestern, No. 5 Cincinnati and Fresno State.

Nurse is coming off of his best game at Illinois, a four-sack effort in the team's 35-32 victory against Minnesota. The four sacks tied for the second-highest single-game total in team history, behind only five sacks recorded by All-American Simeon Rice in 1994. Performances like those don't come around every Saturday, but don't expect Nurse to start turning cartwheels.

"It was something that I felt great about on Saturday, forgot about on Sunday and I’ve continued to forget about it," he said. "I want to go into games with the mentality that I haven’t achieved anything. I want myself to stay hungry. It’s not something to dwell on.

"At the end of the day, we’re still 3-6. That’s nothing to hang your hat on."

Nurse's response to success might seem cold, but he takes the same approach with failure, which is a welcome change for Illinois. As the team stumbled out of the gate, dropping six of its first seven games, all by 10 points or more, players would let mistakes linger.

Bad plays would turn into bad sequences and, eventually, bad games.

But the Illini are learning to move on from their errors. Two weeks ago against Michigan, Illinois allowed a 76-yard pass play before cornerback Terry Hawthorne tracked down Roy Roundtree just shy of the goal line. Rather than lament the big play, Illinois stuffed Michigan four times to regain possession.

"We’re playing with a nothing-to-lose type of mentality," Nurse said. "So you made a mistake? Let it go. Just let it slide, man. Because honestly, what can you do? Play in the now, play in the present, don’t worry about it."

The attitude suits Nurse, who only started playing football midway through high school after immigrating from Guyana with his parents. It has taken time for him to acclimate to the game, but playing alongside teammates like Pilcher, Josh Brent and Corey Liuget has helped.

The 6-3, 260-pound Nurse leads Illinois in both tackles for loss (10.5) and sacks (5.5), and he ranks second in forced fumbles (2).

"When I play with those guys, it allows me to go out and do things I normally wouldn’t have the confidence to do," he said. "I know, ‘You know what? These guys have my back. I can be loose.’ And if I’m making mistakes, so what? Just play the next play."

The 1-6 start took several goals off the table for Illinois, but the players are focused on what's in front of them.

"It’s kind of living on the edge," Nurse said. "You don't want to go backwards because you know you’re going to fall. You've got to keep pushing ahead because you know that's where the success is."

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