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Ron Zook just one of many motivators for Illini to win bowl game

Michigan v Illinois

Michigan v Illinois

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Updated: January 23, 2012 11:05AM

CHAMPAIGN — Honoring former coach Ron Zook is certainly one of the items in the suitcase. But it’s not as simple as wanting to win one for the Zooker as Illinois prepares for its long, strange bowl trip.

Only one team (Washington, which is heading to San Antonio) will travel farther than the 2,129 miles from Champaign to San Francisco to play in its bowl.

There may never have been a team that took a six-game losing streak into its bowl game.

A victory over UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec.  31 would make this Illinois team the first in school history to win back-to-back bowl games.

And the Illini are doing it all with a beloved interim coach, Vic Koenning, who’s departing after the game ends, reportedly to become defensive coordinator at North Carolina.

Talk about a maelstrom of emotions.

‘‘The thing is, we can’t get distracted,’’ All-America defensive end Whitney Mercilus said. ‘‘We have to focus on these practices and try to do things the university hasn’t done. We haven’t won back-to-back bowl games.

‘‘And we have to try to play for coach Zook, try to win the game for him. I know he’s going to be watching. He’d be proud if we won the game. And we want to send coach Vic out with a win, to North Carolina, and start the program off in a positive way for next year.’’

The players may not question the decision to fire Zook, but they still have feelings for the man who brought them to Champaign and was a part of their daily lives.

‘‘Yeah, I’d say so,’’ Mercilus said. ‘‘Personally, I am still [upset]. But I understand what had to happen. Everybody does. At the end of the day, it’s business. It’s for the better of the program and the university. You just have to move forward.’’

New coach Tim Beckman is doing an energetic job on that front. He announced that two of his former Toledo assistants, Mike Ward and Alex Golesh, will join his Illinois staff, and he said he’ll introduce the others when their bowl trips conclude.

Beckman, who has been watching practice and meeting with each player, said he’s impressed by what he has seen on the practice field and what he has heard in individual sessions.

‘‘I’m eager to coach this team,’’ he said, ‘‘because I think there’s some players here that are eager to win and do the things that are necessary to be champions.’’

One player Beckman would like to coach is Mercilus, a junior.

‘‘Heck, yeah,’’ the new coach said emphatically.

The trouble is, it’s going to be difficult for Mercilus, whose NFL stock probably can’t go any higher, to remain in Champaign.

The Illini will head to San Francisco without fullback Jay Prosch, who will miss the game because of a staph infection. They also may be without leading rusher Jason Ford for academic reasons.

‘‘I’ve been in the academic offices twice a day,’’ Koenning said. ‘‘It’s not fair to [Ford] to practice if he’s not going to make it.’’

The absence of the talented, versatile Prosch will be felt strongly on special teams, a notorious Illinois weakness that Koenning has been giving special attention.

What’s been the biggest problem?

‘‘Players,’’ Koenning said. ‘‘We have to get more good players.’’

If Illinois (6-6) can find a way to beat UCLA — and it’s a slight favorite against the 6-7 Bruins, who also are led by an interim coach — it would be a very satisfying way to end a very turbulent season.

‘’If we can get that done, with what’s gone on,’’ Koenning said, ‘‘we climbed a lot of barbed wire fences to get there. It’ll be something the guys need to take and cherish in their hearts the rest of their lives.’’

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