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Unbeaten Illinois seeks faster start against No. 15 California
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- As Illinois hits the road for the first time this season and faces a ranked opponent for the first time since last October, coach Ron Zook said Tuesday his team can't afford another sluggish start like those that have plagued its first two games.
The Illini, 2-0 for the first time since their Big Ten championship season in 2001, face No. 15 California on Saturday in Berkeley. The Golden Bears have outscored their first two opponents 97-20.
"They're very, very talented," Zook said. "Their offensive line, the sun will go away when they stand up."
The Illini have stumbled in their first offensive series in each of the first two games.
Against Rutgers, quarterback Tim Brasic was sacked twice in three plays and Illinois lost nine yards on its first four downs. Things got no better against San Jose State on Saturday when the Illini had two false start penalties. Brasic was sacked again and Steve Weatherford's punt was blocked in the first series against the Spartans.
San Jose took that blocked punt and turned it into a 19-yard touchdown drive.
"It was ugly," said Illinois tackle JJ Simmons. "We need to play a quarter before we go out there, I think. A scrimmage or something."
A strong start will be important against Cal, but the Illini players know that and the way they came back after that early adversity the first two weeks is encouraging, Zook said.
"You have to draw strength from the fact that they were able to maintain their poise ... particularly when maybe they've had the attitude in the past that 'Oh gosh, here we go again,' they've been able to fight through that," he said.
The Illini came from a 20-point deficit to defeat Rutgers and bounced back from a 7-0 deficit with three first-quarter touchdowns on their way to a 40-19 win over San Jose State. But a poor start against Cal could be very costly, Simmons said.
"A good team like that will jump on that and take even more advantage of it than San Jose State did," he said. "We just want to settle down, get all the jitters out of the way and just play football." Notes: A win over Cal would give Illinois a 3-0 record for the first time since 2001 and would break a string of nine straight losses to ranked teams, dating to a 34-22 win over No. 25 Ohio State on Nov. 17, 2001. ... The Illini are 12-12 inside their opponent's 20-yard line this season, with 7 touchdowns and 5 field goals.