The wins came in a surprisingly rapid succession. Yet Illinois football coach Ron Zook didn't want his Illini listening to all the talk. "We haven't done anything yet,'' Zook said. Pardon the interruption, but the Illini have done plenty in the season's first month.
The wins came in a surprisingly rapid succession. Yet Illinois football coach Ron Zook didn't want his Illini listening to all the talk.
"We haven't done anything yet,'' Zook said.
Pardon the interruption, but the Illini have done plenty in the season's first month. By stringing together a four-game winning streak and enjoying their first 2-0 start in the Big Ten since 1991, the Illini provided hope and put themselves in position for their first bowl berth since 2001.
Not only has Zook got his Illini and their fans believing, but he also convinced the Vegas oddsmakers. The Illini began the week as three-point favorites in today's game against No. 5 Wisconsin.
"Ludicrous,'' said Zook, whose latest obstacle was shielding the Illini from adoring fans and media covering a program rising from the dead. Illinois will juggle surging confidence and dealing with the hype for the first time under Zook.
Undeniably, the possibilities multiply with another victory by the Illini. While Illinois became the Big Ten Conference's surprise team and made fall Saturdays fun again in central Illinois, Wisconsin created doubt by winning five relatively close games and stretching the nation's longest winning streak to 14 games.
"Right now, I don't want to say we've turned it around -- and we haven't turned it around -- but we've made some progress," Zook said. "You want them to feel good about what we've accomplished but understand we haven't done anything else yet but make progress.
"I told the team, 'Remember two years ago, Penn State came in here and took everything but our equipment. You can go right back to that.' This is a humbling game. You have to maintain your focus.''
Even if the Illini don't want to get ahead of themselves, that hasn't stopped anyone else from talking.
A victory would give the Illini their first 3-0 start in the Big Ten since 1990 and assuredly move them into the top 25 rankings for the first time in six years.
Winning the Big Ten seems far-fetched, even for somebody drinking the orange Kool-Aid. With a win today, the odds become greater for Illinois' second appearance in a New Year's Day bowl game in the last 17 seasons.
Cbssportsline.com already predicted the Illini would play in the Outback Bowl. OK, it's still the first weekend of October, and Illinois hasn't beaten a team ranked in the top five since knocking off No. 5 Southern Cal in 1989.
Illinois has its problems. The Illini ranked No. 108 among 119 major-college teams in passing offense. Zook yanked starter Juice Williams in the fourth quarter against Penn State last week, said the following day freshman backup Eddie McGee would likely play, then became more vague as the week continued.
Illinois also ranked No. 78 in passing defense after giving up 298 yards passing to Penn State last week. But the chore this week is stopping Wisconsin running back P.J. Hill, who ranks sixth in the nation in rushing (133.4 yards per game) and second in scoring (12 points a game).
Illinois stands No. 110 nationally in punting. Freshman Anthony Santella shanked a 29-yarder in the final minutes against Penn State.
September was the appetizer, and October is a meat-and-potatoes month. But Wisconsin hasn't earned much respect in the best poll of public opinion, the betting line.
"I don't know what's going into that,'' Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. "I never have. I never will. We've been able to complete five games with wins. It might not be as clean as everybody wants. As a football coach, you enjoy being able to stay alive every week. Every week is a playoff in college football.
"If the (top 25) polls go the way their supposed to go and teams move forward if they win games, the teams standing at the end will play in better bowl games. I can't help what people think should happen as far as scores. What you have to do is survive. I can only control what I think and what I feel.''
Zook fights the other end of the same battle.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. For more Illini coverage, read Illini Talk blog at www.sj-r.com and www.pjstar.com.