Changes pay off for Illini

John Supinie

Illinois coach Ron Zook wasn't afraid to make a change.

He primed freshman running back Jason Ford last week for a breakout game. Zook gave placekicker Derek Dimke his first playing time on kickoffs, went with freshman tackle Corey Lewis and used defensive tackles Josh Brent and Corey Liuget as blocking backs in Illinois' 55-13 victory over Indiana on Saturday in Big Ten Conference play at Memorial Stadium.

Perhaps all these changes weren't necessary against the Hoosiers, whose five-game losing streak is the longest current slide in the Big Ten. When the Illini (4-3 overall, 2-2 in the Big Ten) play at Wisconsin (3-4, 0-4) on Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN2), the Illini face a team that hasn't yet found the solution.

The Badgers, who were ranked No. 8 after a 3-0 start, fell 38-16 at Iowa on Saturday and have lost their first four conference games for the first time since 1996.

"That's what scares you,'' Zook said Sunday. "You know they're going to erupt. All I can tell you is what I told the football team last night. Remember Iowa was struggling last year when all of a sudden … boom. Same kind of thing. We all know (Wisconsin) is a good football team.

"They've had a couple struggles here and there. When they start hitting on all cylinders, they're going to go, and they're going to go fast.”

Wisconsin benched senior quarterback Allan Evridge in favor of junior Dustin Sherer, who made his first college start, but the loss left the Badgers even closer to missing bowl season for the first time since 2001.

"I'm responsible for everything that goes on out there -- offense, defense and special teams,'' Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said Saturday. "I made an emphasis to our guys in the post-game locker room that we're going to take a very critical look at everything we're doing.

"We'll get as simple as we need to get because we need to get better at something. Right now we're not very good in all areas of the game. The team that is beating Wisconsin the most is Wisconsin.''

Meanwhile, the moves by Zook helped Illinois overwhelm Indiana. The Illini set a Memorial Stadium record for points in a Big Ten game and a new high mark for scoring under Zook. The Illini also finished with a season-high 563 total yards.

"We're going to keep moving guys around to get what we're expecting,'' Zook said. "You're expectation level has to be the same as the coaches' expectations.''

Ford rushed for 172 yards and three touchdowns. Listed at 6-foot and 220 pounds, the Belleville Althoff product provided a hard-charging, tough-to-tackle option. If he trailed the other three running backs on the learning curve with the offense (fellow freshman Mikel Leshoure enrolled early and went through spring drills), Ford likely caught up. Zook wouldn't say if Ford is the first-stringer.

"I don't know why anything has to change,'' Zook said. "Nothing really has changed. He got a little hot, so we left him in there.''

Dimke averaged 61.4 yards on nine kickoffs, and blockers Liuget and Brent could perhaps even work their way into running roles.

"You get them in there to move people,'' Zook said. "When you get 300 pounds running fast and running into people, you get a little bit of a collision. You build on those things.''

The Illini bounced back from a disappointing homecoming loss to Minnesota.

"What a difference a week makes,'' Zook said. "We're proud of the guys. They understood they had to go work. The season wasn't over.

"We've made improvement. We got a lot of young guys improving. This will help us down the road. This understand this is a big, big game against Wisconsin.''

John Supinie can be reached at