Ron Zook to Illini: Relax, don't do it

In its past two games, Illinois hasn't looked anything like the team that started the season 6-0 and crept into the Top 20.

The Illini have lost back-to-back games to Ohio State and Purdue and needed late scores just to make those games close. An offense which was operating with good balance in the run and pass game has stalled, mustering just 21 total points in the two losses.

So what's Ron Zook's solution as Illinois travels to No. 19 Penn State this weekend? Chill out, dudes.

Zook says he senses that his players have been too tense during the two losses, perhaps burdened by higher expectations after their hot start.

"The last two weeks we've played tight, particularly on the offensive side of the football," he said. "We're trying too hard and pressing. We as a coaching staff have got to let them relax and understand this is the same football team that won six games."

Relaxing may seem difficult in this situation, given the tough road environment in State College and the way Penn State is playing during its own six-game winning streak. Heck, it may seem tough for a head coach who looks completely zoned in while participating in his favorite hobby. But Zook says the underdog role may actually suit his team at this time.

"We've got to go play and have fun," he said. "What better place to have fun and fly around than Penn State?

"It's probably a little bit easier to relax [against Penn State] than playing a team where [people say], 'Oh, you're supposed to beat these guys,' and all that kind of stuff."

The Nittany Lions may be favored this week, but they remember what happened last year in Happy Valley, when Illinois smacked them 33-13. Joe Paterno said Tuesday that Illinois is the best team Penn State has played outside of Alabama. So you can bet the Lions will be ready.

The Illini must find a way to move the ball against Penn State's smothering defense. Zook said his team needs to get the running game going again, and he plans to lean heavily on tailback Jason Ford.

"This is going to be tough sledding this week," he said. "We've got to get what we can get. I told Jason on Monday, we're going to saddle him up and ride him. That doesn't mean the other guys aren't going to play, but I think Jason's played extremely well these last couple weeks and we need to just get him in there and let him roll."

If Illinois can't get back on a roll this week, it will feel pressure after the bye week with Michigan and Wisconsin coming to Champaign in back-to-back weeks. A 6-0 start could easily dissolve into a 7-5 season or worse.

But to think about that would mean harshing the Illini mellow. Zookie Say Relax.