The Proper State Of Mind August 19, 2011
It’s 48 hours later, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
Wednesday evening’s practice – the last practice I got to see in Rantoul – left such an impression on me that I can’t stop thinking about it. It was so crazy, so competitive, so intense, that I’ll be driving in my car and my mind will drift to Terry Hawthorne breaking up a pass and 40 guys on the defensive side of the field mobbing him like he just returned a pick-6 in the Rose Bowl.
The reason it’s on my mind is simple: last year, as Paul Petrino was installing his offense and Vic Koenning was installing his defense, they preached teammate support. Vic Koenning set out to eliminate all post-tackle individual celebrations – you play as a team, you celebrate as a team. Paul Petrino begged his guys to be vocal. When they’re catching passes off the ball machine, he wants all of the guys waiting in line to be supportive of their teammate. “Let’s go 19… great work Kenny… that’s the way 19…” – that kind of stuff.
The goal, in my estimation, was to get both sides of the ball to take some pride in their side. When the two sides would scrimmage each other, the natural reaction would be to stand on the sideline and support your guy making a play on the field. And for the most part, it was effective. Last year, you would hear a lot of Petrino encouraging his guys to be vocal, and they would oblige.
This year, I noticed it was a little louder. A play would end, the coaches would yell instructions, and the sidelines would swell with encouragement, even if it was just the third string guys out there. The offense wears blue, the defense wears white, and every player is compelled to cheer for the guys wearing their color. I left practice Wednesday morning thinking about it. Was it wise to pit teammate against teammate? Steve Hull and his old roommate Nathan Scheelhaase as enemies instead of friends?
And then Wednesday night happened, and I understood. These coaches were getting the players in the proper state of mind. Football is an emotional, competitive game, and when the talent is equal on the field, the team that wants it more wins. And many times, the team with less talent that really wants it more will win.
It started with an 11 on 11 drill on field #2. There was no tackling, but there was hitting. The only rule, it seems, is that the ballcarrier can be hit but not brought to the ground. Take a swipe at the ball, knock him with your shoulder so that his momentum is stopped and he’s aware he would have gone down, but don’t bring him to the ground. It’s an injury prevention measure.
So in this 11 on 11 drill – I believe it was a redzone drill inside the 10 – the offense scores on a pass to AJ Jenkins. And the guys in blue erupt. Next play, on a handoff to Jason Ford up the middle, the defense responds. Someone (Brandon Denmark, maybe?) bumps Ford as he comes through the hole and the ball pops out. Steve Hull picks it up and starts running the other way. This is the defense’s favorite moment – play after play they cannot tackle the guy with the ball, but now their guy has the ball and the offense has to just take it. Hull bumped a few guys as he went by, just for good measure.
Then – and I believe this to be the spark that ignited the rest of the practice – Hull took a few steps towards the offensive sideline and lobbed the ball underhand into their huddle like a gladiator tossing a severed head. The offense was not amused. The defense was. It’s on.
After a final round of individual drills, both squads met on Field #1 for the main event. Again, no tackling, but hard hitting. Hull charges forward and breaks up a pass. The defensive sideline goes nuts. Hull gathers the ball and punts it towards the offense. More growling. Next play, a sideline pass (defensive sideline) is broken up by Terry Hawthorne. 40 guys in white shirts mob him and slap his helmet while screaming like maniacs. Now the defensive cheer starts: “hoo-ah (HOO-AH) hoo-ah (HOO-AH)”. This is getting intense.
Next play, defensive end Tim Kynard beats his man and gets the touch sack. Now the defensive roar can be heard in Thomasboro. Fans are starting to stand up on the bleachers. The Mahomet JFL kids beyond the fence are screaming “hoo-ah (HOO-AH)”. The guys wearing blue are completely back on their heels.
The ball is moved to the 35. Nathan Scheelhaase hands the ball to Donovonn Young, who gains the corner and bursts down the sideline in the clear. The offense starts to cheer. Then Young, about to be pushed out of bounds by freshman cornerback Eaton Spence, delivers a stiffarm to Spence’s inside shoulder and sends him flying backwards through the air. The offensive sideline, silent and stammering just 45 seconds ago, erupts. They have responded.
For the last 7 or 8 plays of the scrimmage, including a few two-point conversion tries where they were tackling, it was the offense striking back. Young around the corner, staying on his feet and scoring. Jason Ford up the gut. Scheelhaase to Jenkins in the corner. The offense has taken a blow to the chin, stumbled around for a bit, and then fought back.
I didn’t want it to end. I doubt the coaches wanted it to end. The atmosphere was electric, and the players were responding to it (and thriving in it). It made me think of one thing: Ray Eliot’s “Proper State of Mind” speech. It’s a famous speech in Illini lore, including the well-known “send Ameche at me” line, but the parts I was thinking about were these:
“Manhood comes from within your heart – it’s how you believe. Regardless of odds, never to flinch – on the field of play, or in the battle of life – never to flinch.”
“The will to succeed; without it, you’re dead. As far as I’m concerned, gentlemen, with due respect to the O’s and the X’s, that is the beginning and the end and the in-between of football.”
“If you can get the boys in the proper state of mind, you’ve got a winner – YOU’VE GOT A WINNER!”
If we can play like Wednesday night, we’ve got a winner. I truly believe that. That defense, in that mindset, could have shut down Oregon. That offense, with that response, could have scored on Ohio State. It was as focused and intense as any Illini team I’ve ever witnessed in practice.
Will it translate to the season? Who knows. But there were signs last season – the first quarter against Northwestern, the second quarter at Penn State – where we showed that we can dial it in, center our focus, and destroy an opponent. To be fair, there were also moments – first 10 minutes at Fresno State, last 10 minutes against Minnesota – where we played scared. Will we be as emotionally inconsistent this fall? Maybe.
Or maybe Wednesday night was a turning point. Maybe Wednesday night starts us on the road to a very successful season. Maybe these boys are now in the proper state of mind.