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ILLINOIS REPORT

Underdog Illini feel pretty loose

January 01, 2008|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

The Illinois players and coaches know that USC is heavily favored in today's Rose Bowl game and they haven't spent much time arguing the point.

The Fighting Illini have praised USC's balance on offense and athleticism on defense. They have noted that Trojans rooters will probably outnumber their fans in the stadium.

If anything, the Illini seem to have embraced their role as underdogs.

"It almost makes us looser," running back Rashard Mendenhall said. "Playing in a game in which no one gives us much of a chance, we just have to focus on ourselves."

Mendenhall and his teammates can take confidence in the fact they have scored upsets of Wisconsin and Ohio State this fall. Coach Ron Zook believes that his players respond well to difficult situations.

"When bad things happen, which they do in a football game, they've been able to maintain their poise," he said. "They don't panic."

If the Illini need additional motivation, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney spoke to them this week about pride in the conference. The Big Ten's reputation has suffered over the last year, starting with Ohio State's loss to Florida in last season's national championship game.

Zook said: "I know people kind of judge where the best football is played by the bowl scenarios . . . it's important that all the Big Ten teams play the best they can."

All-American linebacker J Leman said he thinks USC might have an advantage in team speed -- "I'm just glad we're not in a track meet" -- but also thinks he has an answer.

"Say we might be a little slower," he said. "I believe what equalizes that is when we start hitting."

Finishing with a week of practice at the Home Depot Center, Zook said his team is healthier "than we've been the entire year. We're as good as we can possibly be."

The team had morning meetings Monday and Zook planned to gather with his assistants in the evening to discuss last-minute details. But he also said it was time for everyone to relax and get some rest before kickoff.

Linebacker Brit Miller planned to use at least part of the 24 hours before kickoff to watch more video of the Trojans.

"For some reason, with 'SC we're liking the extra time," Miller said. "When you look at them, they present a new challenge every day."

david.wharton@latimes.com

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