Illinois looking to build on two-game winning streak

John Supini

Illinois carried a winning streak -- and some momentum -- into Big Ten Conference play for the first time in football coach Ron Zook's three years at the school. After securing the first back-to-back victories since Zook's first two games as Illini coach, Illinois (2-1) opens the Big Ten season at Indiana (3-0) Saturday (11 a.m., Big Ten Network).

The Illini savored a 41-20 victory over Syracuse Saturday during the flight home, but they were already looking forward to the conference opener.

 "I told them in the locker room that it's important to enjoy (the win),'' Zook said. "You have 24 hours to enjoy it, then let's go to work. I enjoyed how the upperclassmen talked about the Big Ten. They said this is an opportunity for us to prove to our fans and ourselves that we can compete in the Big Ten.''

 Under Zook, the Illini are 1-15 in the Big Ten.

 Keeping the win streak alive means slowing Indiana quarterback Kellen Lewis. In a 41-24 victory over Akron Saturday, Lewis ran for a career-high 199 yards and two touchdowns and threw for 137 yards and three more touchdowns. Like Illinois quarterback Juice Williams, Lewis is a dual-threat quarterback who puts a defense in a bind.

 Williams and Lewis "are a little bit different,'' Zook said. "Juice is more of a power runner. (Lewis) ran for an unbelievable number of yards yesterday. That's the threat you have with a running quarterback.

 "It puts a lot of pressure on the defense. They can't just lay their ears back and go. They can't be cautious, but they can't just let it go.''

 A Jacksonville, Fla., native, Lewis lived up to some of the comparisons to former Indiana quarterback Antwaan Randle El. The rushing performance was the third best by an Indiana quarterback, trailing only Randle El's 210 yards against Minnesota and 209 against Illinois in the 2000 season.

 Indiana ranks No. 17 nationally in scoring offense (44.3 points per game) and No. 20 in total offense (477.7), but the Illini serve as the Hoosiers' first real test. Indiana defeated Division I-AA Indiana State (55-7) in the opener before games against two Mid-American Conference teams -- Western Michigan (37-27) and Akron.

 "The first thing we talk about is points, because you have to score points in the Big Ten to win,'' Indiana interim coach Bill Lynch said. "The Big Ten is not a 14-10 conference anymore.''

 Indiana rallied from 18 points down for a 34-32 victory at Illinois last season.

 Illinois survived the Syracuse game without a major injury. Running back Rashard Mendenhall, backup running back Daniel Dufrene and safety Justin Harrison suffered ankle sprains that shouldn't keep them out of practice this week, Zook said. Defensive tackle David Lindquist had a bruised thigh and dislocated a finger.

 Illinois rushed for 378 yards and rolled to a 17-0 halftime lead against Syracuse.

The Illini ended an eight-game losing streak in domes that dated to 1994.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. For more Illini coverage, see Illini Talk blog at www.sj-r.com and www.pjstar.com.