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Monday, September 22, 2008
Illinois happy to be an underdog again


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Illinois linebacker Brit Miller noticed something different as soon as he walked into the weight room before dawn today.

Wideout Chris Duvalt was bouncing around, and other players had more zip to their step. After struggling at times on both sides of the ball in their first three games, the Illini had returned from a bye week refreshed and recharged.

"Whenever there's excitement on Monday morning at 6 a.m. during the lift," Miller said, "you know guys are ready to play."

Miller didn't sense the same excitement earlier this season, even before a much-anticipated opener against Missouri.

"People had that first-game wonderment, kind of wondering what's going to happen," Miller said. "This team has grown since that first game, knowing you have to go out and take it from your opponent. Having the guys excited and having people talking about Penn State this morning, that's a big deal. We had that a lot last year."

Another thing Illinois had a lot last year -- and for most of this decade -- was the underdog tag. Coming off consecutive 2-win seasons in 2005 and 2006, few outside the Champaign-Urbana corridor pegged the Illini for a Rose Bowl run. But the team pulled several upsets, none bigger than a road win against top-ranked Ohio State.

The Illini are underdogs once again heading into their Big Ten opener Saturday night at No. 12 Penn State (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). The Nittany Lions looked dominant in non-league play, albeit against weak competition, and will test an Illinois team that can prove it hasn't regressed from 2007.

"I've heard that, that we're the underdog going in," defensive end Will Davis said. "We've played our best games like that. When people say we can't win, we come out and play our hardest. That's what's happened in the past and you've got prove it on Saturday."

After an underwhelming 20-17 win against Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 13, Illinois coach Ron Zook challenged his best players to start performing like it. Zook certainly was referring to junior quarterback Juice Williams, who had only 147 passing yards against the Rajin' Cajuns, but also players like wideout Rejus Benn, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

Benn has yet to catch a touchdown pass this season but can change games at any time, as he showed last season against Penn State with a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

"Coach expects a lot out of us," Benn said. "We came here to be on the forefront of that stage and be depended on in certain situations."

Illinois knows it can depend on Williams in hostile environments like Penn State. He turned in his signature performance last November at Ohio State (four touchdown passes, 70 rush yards) and relishes situations like the one he'll enter Saturday night at Beaver Stadium.

"It's a lot easier being the underdog," Williams said. "There's less pressure for you. We can pretty much go out there and play the game, not worry about everything. I've been the underdog my whole life. It gives you the opportunity to prove yourself."