Illini jump into top 25 rankings

John Supinie

Life is good if you're Illinois football coach Ron Zook.

The Illini jumped into the top 25 rankings Sunday for the first time in six years -- Illinois was ranked No. 18 in the Associated Press media poll and No. 19 in the USA Today coaches poll -- and Zook appeared ready to sign a contract extension from athletic director Ron Guenther.

Illinois made its first appearance in the top 25 since finishing the 2001 season at No. 12 following a loss to LSU in the Sugar Bowl.

"Any time you're ranked, it's an honor,'' Zook said. "It's a privilege. It doesn't really mean anything until it's over. If we think we're fortunate to get to get to the top 25, it means we've not been there for a long while. Others think that's where you're supposed to be.''

Illinois (5-1 overall, 3-0 in the Big Ten Conference) carries a five-game winning streak to Iowa (2-4, 0-3) for a conference game Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN2).

Illinois knocked off then-No. 5 Wisconsin 31-26 Saturday for its first win against a top 5 team since 1989. Illinois already sold out three home games, and the Illini could play on New Year's Day for the second time in the past 17 years. Illinois football is rolling.

So it seems the right time to extend Zook's contract.

"Coach Guenther and I have talked,'' Zook said. "The way I understand it, I have the opportunity to be here for a long time. That's what I want. I understand also in this profession, you're judged on production. It's a production based profession.

"The contract issue isn't something I'm going to think about now. I know it's going to be handled.''

Zook earns $1 million a year on a contract that runs through the 2009 season.

Illinois quarterback Juice Williams (knee) and freshman receiver Arrelious Benn (shoulder) were expected to return to practice today and play against Iowa, Zook said. Williams hyper-extended his left knee late in the fourth quarter against Wisconsin, and Benn appeared to dislocate his right shoulder late in the third quarter.

Williams wore an elastic sleeve while sitting during the final minutes while backup Eddie McGee scored the game-winning five-yard touchdown run and clinched the win moments later with a two-yard quarterback sneak on fourth and one.

Benn dislocated the same shoulder during the Camp Rantoul scrimmage.

Safety Justin Harrison (back), receiver Brian Game (ankle) and cornerback Chris Duvalt (shoulder) also nursed soreness after the physical game, Zook said.

After rushing for 289 yards and averaging 6.6 yards per carry, the Illini stood at No. 5 nationally in rushing with 261.2 yards per game. Junior running back Rashard Mendenhall is seventh nationally with 128.7 yards per game. Michigan's Mike Hart leads the Big Ten and ranks second nationally with 162.7 yards per game.

Mendenhall averaged 6.8 yards per carry. Hart gained 5.5 per attempt.

Iowa has a four-game losing streak after dropping a 27-7 loss at Penn State Saturday. Iowa has an eight-game losing streak in Big Ten play, and Iowa began to realize the Hawkeyes are in for a long year.

"Our challenges are obvious,'' Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday. "Our positives aren't quite that obvious. There really isn't much else to say right now.''

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.