- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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This isn't how Illinois defensive end Doug Pilcher envisioned his final collegiate game taking place.
For starters, Pilcher, like the rest of his Fighting Illini teammates, entered the season fully expecting to play beyond Saturday's contest against Fresno State (Big Ten Network, 12:30 p.m. ET). Illinois had both talent and depth, and was widely projected to end up back in a bowl game after a one-year hiatus.
But nothing went according to plan, and a senior class that has endured an unusual tenure in Champaign will receive its sendoff Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
“The season didn't go as well as we'd hoped," said Pilcher, who ranks second on the team in both sacks (3.5) and tackles for loss (7.5). "We had high expectations. But you can’t really change it. It is what it is. Right now, we just focus on Fresno State and working hard to get that win. We want to go out with a bang."
The fourth-year seniors were part of head coach Ron Zook's first full recruiting class to Illinois. Juice Williams, a raw but talented quarterback from Chicago, headlined the group, along with other heralded prospects like Vontae Davis, Chris Duvalt, Chris James and Jeff Cumberland.
Illinois fourth-year and fifth-year seniors were part of the team's surprise Rose Bowl run in 2007. They also have experienced plenty of losing. Remove the 2007 season, and Illinois has gone 12-34 since Zook's arrival.
"They've done an awful lot of good things and an awful lot of bad things," Zook said this week. "One thing this class has done is show us where we can be and where we need to get back to. When they came here, it wasn't necessarily the popular thing to do, so I have a special place in my heart for that. As I told our football team after the [Cincinnati] game, they basically recruited everybody in this room.
"We owe it to them to do everything in our power as a football team and as a coaching staff to do everything we can do to win this game."
Zook recited the play-every-play-like-it's-your-last cliché during a team meeting Monday, but he further explained his point.
"Why do you think you talk about playing every play like it's your last play?" Zook said. "Because eventually it's going to be, and as I said, for some of these guys this is it. You will never play football again. ... The only thing they're guaranteed is one more game."
Though Illinois is playing strictly for pride Saturday, Pilcher doesn't expect any letdown. Fresno State boasts the nation's leading rusher in junior Ryan Matthews (149.1 ypg), who is cleared to play after missing the Bulldogs' last two games with a concussion.
"It’s always great to compete against the best," Pilcher said. "Everyone's fired up to play. It's important for us to get this win and send the underclassmen out on a high note."
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