Illini hoping familiarity isn’t contemptible

JOHN SUPINIE

Illinois beats Michigan in a Big Ten Conference football victory that boosts morale, then plays Minnesota. Sound familiar?

History repeats itself Saturday, when Illinois plays at Minnesota after a victory over Michigan last weekend ended a nine-game losing streak to major-college programs and provided hope for somewhere in the future.

After Illinois defeated Michigan in the Big House last season, the Illini returned to Memorial Stadium for homecoming. Despite quarterback Juice Williams passing for 462 yards and setting a stadium record with 503 total yards, Illinois fell to Minnesota 27-20 in part because of three costly turnovers. The Illini never recovered.

“There’s been so many things happen since then,’’ Illinois coach Ron Zook said. “As they begin to look at the tape and bring back memories from last year, they may feel that way.’’

If there was a day when Rose Bowl momentum disappeared, it was against the Gophers. Following that defeat, Illinois dropped 10 of its next 14 games. One of those victories came against Illinois State, a Division I-AA team. The Illini have not had a two-game winning streak against Division I-A teams since 2007.

“You produce so much from an offensive standpoint,’’ Williams said. “We put up almost 600 yards. Then you lose. We were kind of down about it. You worked so hard. After that game, things weren’t going right. All I could blame it on was momentum.’’

Illinois’ victory over Michigan last weekend soothed some of the pain — even though it might have been more reflective of the Wolverines’ status these days.

“When you get a win, everything is a little different,’’ Williams said. “You walk around campus with a little more confidence. That’s a start. We have to keep going from here.’’

Illinois will use a two-quarterback platoon Saturday at Minneapolis, Zook said, even though Williams went wire to wire against the Wolverines while redshirt freshman Jacob Charest remained on the sidelines. No matter who plays quarterback, the Illini might concentrate on running the ball.

Illinois rushed for 377 yards against Michigan, led by a career-high 150 from sophomore Mikel Leshoure and another 128 from sophomore Jason Ford. Leshoure has rushed for 350 yards over the last three games and has set a career high in each one.

Ford and Leshoure took much of the workload and responsibility out of the hands of Williams, who was 8-for-11 for 123 yards passing against Michigan. A strong running game was something expected when Illinois hired offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, who directed a Texas Christian offense that ranked 13th nationally in rushing last season and helped it lead the nation in time of possession.

The Illini rank second in the Big Ten in rushing (197.5 yards per game) and 20th nationally.

“Ford and LeShoure are both big-time backs, big, physical backs,’’ Minnesota coach Tim Brewster said. “They’re going to try to run the football. Obviously, they were very motivated to get back on track and win a football game. They went out and played extremely well against Michigan and got a big win.’’

Minnesota ended last season with a five-game losing streak but needs only one victory to earn bowl eligibility for the ninth time in the last 11 seasons. Despite losing star receiver Eric Decker for the season with a foot injury, Minnesota put a charge in the program with a victory over Michigan State last weekend.

This game might come down to Illinois’ running game vs. Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber, who threw for a career high 416 yards and five touchdowns against Michigan State.

“I hope there’s a carryover from Saturday,’’ Zook said. “That’s what we have to do. We have to take the rear-view mirror off and go forward.’’

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.