Look for Ilinois in coaches' poll

Tim Cronin

Ron Zook didn’t vote for Illinois in the coaches’ poll last week, he said, because Missouri, which handed the Fighting Illini their only loss, was a better team in his eyes.

And now, after the Illini have scored back-to-back wins over ranked teams in as many weeks for the first time since 1959?

“I might,” Zook said with a grin after a 31-26 win Saturday over fifth-ranked Wisconsin.

“I’m thinking about it, too,” quarterback Juice Williams said of potentially being ranked. “I think we’ll take a peek at the highlights today.”

At 5-1 overall, with wins over Penn State and Wisconsin in the last fortnight, and standing 3-0 in the Big Ten, the Illini are in for some love from the ballot box. But to hear the players tell it, it will be business as usual this week. More than one player mentioned Zook’s 24-hour rule, allowing for only that amount of celebrating after a win or sulking after a loss.

“At 3-0 in the Big Ten, I think we’re contenders,” Williams said. “But we’re not gonna hang our hats on that. Our ultimate goal is 8-0.”

That would equal a Big Ten title, or at least a share if Purdue runs the conference table. It also would mean a New Year’s Day bowl, most likely the Rose Bowl.

That, nobody wanted to talk about.

“No, no, no,” linebacker J Leman said. “We have an appointment at Kinnick Stadium (at Iowa) next week.”

“I can’t say we’re at the top level now,” running back Rashard Mendenhall said. “We’re going to try to beat Iowa. I don’t think anyone here is surprised (at a 5-1 record). Now we get Ws instead of coming close.”

They also get acclaim going into games. That wasn’t even the case last week, before the victory over Penn State raised eyebrows around the conference.

“This was the first time there was a major buzz around the stadium, around the locker room,” strong safety Justin Harrison said.

The way he said it, it was clear more of the same would be more than welcome.

Around the field

Mendenhall on the play of the offensive line, which opened the way for his 160-yard day: “I coulda been driving a truck through the holes.” ... Illinois’ last back-to-back wins over ranked teams came in the final two weeks of the 1959 season, when the Illini knocked off Wisconsin and Northwestern to finish a 5-3-1 campaign. They also accomplished the feat in 1946 (Wisconsin and Michigan) and 1950 (Washington and Indiana). Illinois has played three ranked teams in as many weeks in previous seasons but hasn’t won all three games. ... Wisconsin held a 231-225 edge in yardage at halftime, even though running back P.J. Hill was held to 30 yards rushing on 12 carries. The yardage for the game: Wisconsin 519, Illinois 410. ... A curious thing happens when the Illini marching band plays “Three In One” at halftime. The crowd, which stood for decades to watch the Chief mascot prance and dance across the field, still stands, as if he’s still out there. The band’s formation, which used to split the “ILL” and “INI” portions with about 25 yards of empty space for the dance, now is continuous, but the music is the same.

-- The Daily Southtown