The times, they are a changin'. At least, it seems that way for Ron Zook and the Fighting Illini football team, who saw their stock take a meteoric rise on Saturday, with an impressive 31-26 wn over the fifth ranked team in the country, the Wisconsin Badgers. The win marked the second consecutive week that the Illini beat a top 25 team, and that should certainly get them in the Top 25 this coming week, a place they haven't been since the Sugar Bowl season of 2oo1. But what has come about to bring this success, you ask? Personally, I think it has been a lot of patience for Coach Zook, who has endured a tumultuous first two seasons as Illini head coach, but the win over the Badgers gives the Illini a 5-1 overall record, and 3-0 in the Big Ten. They seem to have a leg up on the league now, as they stand near the top of the standings. In talking to some of the players after the game, they seem very excited about what is happening in Champaign, and believe that the nation will begin to take notice after they see what the Illini did to the Badgers. Of course, this is exactly what Zook has been talking about, but he knows that they are not there yet, but after a convincing win against a top 5 opponent, you have to think that they are getting close. So, let's take a look at the numbers from the game, shall we? Rashard Mendenhall continued to set the pace by carrying the ball 19 times for 160 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Mendenhall also caught a touchdown pass from Juice Williams, who ended up leaving the game late in the fourth quarter with an apparent hyperextended knee. Enter Eddie McGee into the game, and he made an immediate impact by scampering 5 yards for the game clinching score. Juice didn't have a bad game, completing 12 of 19 passes for 121 yards and the touchdown to Mendenhall, but he also rushed for 92 yards on 14 carries. Williams doesn't need to always have a good day through the air, because as he has shown time and time again, he runs the option very well and can run for quite a bit of yards. But the fact that McGee can come in and not miss a beat says a lot about his versatility. Offensive lineman Ryan McDonald told me that it really doesn't matter who is behind center, because either of the two players can make it happen. When asked if he was ever a relief pitcher in high school, McGee kind of laughed that comment off. It is an added bonus to have someone that can come in to a ballgame like McGee can, and if given the chance to play an entire game, I believe that Eddie could get the job done. He is taller than Juice, and therefore, can see over the line a little better and make the decisions if he sees routes or pockets open. Aurrelious Benn only caught 5 balls for 51 yards, and he left the game with an injury as well, apparently re-aggravating the shoulder injury that he sustained at Camp Rantoul earlier in the fall. Still, it is very comforting to see the renewed excitement by not only the players, but the fans as well. In a season that is marred by stadium construction, the Illini are once again back in contention for a Big Ten title.
So what does this all mean, you ask? With the Illini win on Saturday, they are tied with Ohio State at 3-0 atop the conference standings, with Michigan, who stepped out of conference to take on battle Eastern Michigan, lurking one-half game back at 2-0. The Illini take to the road again next week when they travel to Iowa City to battle the Hawkeyes, who were defeated by Penn State on Saturday 27-7. A road win next Saturday would go a long way and also set up a potential showdown with Michigan in two weeks, in prime time. But everything is still not okay, especially the punting game. Yes, Anthony Santella is better than Kyle Yelton, but he shanked one against the Badgers that could have ended up much worse than it did. Santella did get a few booming punts, but consistency needs to occur if the Illini wish to keep this winning streak alive.
Yes, times are much better for the Illini these days, but it can still get a whole lot better. Just ask Ron Zook; he'll tell ya!
So what do you think of the Illini's success thus far this season? Surprised? Let me know what you think!