Focus key to Illinois' continued success

Tim Cronin

Focus.

That’s what Illinois’ football players have to do now.

Going 5-1 in the first half of the season -- with wins over Penn State and Wisconsin, a pair of ranked Big Ten teams at the time Illinois played them -- has brought the Fighting Illini their first ranking in six years, plus acclaim on campus unseen since their last conference title in 2001.

There’s more than a hint of New Year’s Day bowl fever in the air. Some people are even talking up the Nov. 10 game at Ohio State as a showdown for Big Ten supremacy.

The Illini debut in The Associated Press poll at 18th and in the coaches’ poll at 19th, but neither that nor their 3-0 conference record, good for a share of the lead with Ohio State and Michigan, will matter when the Illini visit Iowa on Saturday.

First comes the rest of the week.

“It’s going to be fun in class, on campus, getting e-mails,” quarterback Isiah “Juice” Williams said.

It’s also a payoff for the work the Illini have put in since Ron Zook took over as head coach beginning with the 2005 season. Williams, a highly-recruited sophomore, joined in the summer of 2006.

“We’ve worked so hard,” Williams said. “Winter training, spring practice, summer workouts. Now we’re just executing what we’ve trained for.”

Williams was fortunate to escape Saturday’s 31-26 win over the Badgers without anything more than a hyperextended left knee, suffered on a five-yard run in the fourth quarter. That brought in backup Eddie McGee for the second straight week.

“I was so scared when it happened,” Williams said. “When I felt the pressure on my knee, I wanted to cry, almost. But I popped up.”

Williams said he could have gone back in, but with Illinois leading 31-19 after McGee’s score on the drive, Zook saw no need.

The day’s major injury was to receiver and kick returner Arrelious Benn, whose right shoulder was reinjured as he was stiff-arming linebacker DeAndre Levy in the third quarter. Benn is expected to be ready for the Hawkeyes.

To beat Iowa for the first time in five meetings, the Illini will have to stick to what has made them successful regardless of the hoopla that has spread through the community, to say nothing of the national attention.

Asked if Illinois hadn’t been respected recently, linebacker J Leman went to the bottom line.

“They really shouldn’t have respected us,” Leman said. “We won eight games the previous four years.”

Winning five of the first six makes that a distant memory.

-- The Daily Southtown