Illinois is bowl eligible after sitting home the last two years. Defeating Northwestern gave them a sixth victory, fourth in the Big 10, and they will be headed to a bowl game over the holidays. Ron Zook is no doubt relieved after two difficult years in which his job was in jeopardy. He had minimal opportunity to celebrate the accomplishment.
"When I finally got done with everything and got back, it was probably around 10:00 pm. So I didn't get a lot of celebrating. But it's just fantastic for the players. Half of them left up there with their parents. The ones who live in Chicago stayed there. Half of them came back. They now have a chance to recharge their batteries and get ready to go."
After a week off for Thanksgiving, the Illini return to the practice field for their final game of the season at Fresno State. It gives them a chance to let their bruises heal prior to the final push. For Zook, there is still plenty of work to do.
"We've got recruiting going on right now. We're not doing quite as much, but I don't know that you'd call it down time. We have to hit recruiting hard tomorrow and Tuesday, and then we've got to get back to practice stuff Thursday night."
Zook and his players enjoyed the chance to play in Wrigley Field. The tightness of the field and the unique rule changes required to play the game there were limitations. Zook was asked his thoughts on the venue and whether the Illini might want to host a game at Wrigley.
"I don't know what's gonna happen. It was a great atmosphere. I know the kids enjoyed it. I could tell as we walked around Friday they loved it. The crowd, it was an amazing thing. I don't know if they can do anything to make it comfortable. I'm not sure I'd be willing to give up a home game."
Media noted the small size of the visitor's locker room, but Zook wasn't bothered by it.
"You need to go up to Northwestern and look at that locker room. Or go to Michigan State and look at their locker room. It was cramped, it was crowded. But there are some visiting locker rooms in this league that are not real nice.
"I'd rather go to that locker room than go to Northwestern's visiting locker room. I probably shouldn't have said that now since you guys will make a big deal of it.
"It was not as big a deal as people made it out to be. We took everybody we could. We wanted the guys from the Chicago area to be able to experience being up there. We had 70 people in there, and we don't always travel with 70.
"If there was one thing more than anything, it was the walk to and from the stadium. The hallway was a little bit tight. But the way we did it worked out fine."
Whatever the problems, winning the game makes everything come out smelling sweet. Zook acknowledged the benefits of playing the game.
"This was a game I think a lot of people will remember the rest of their lives. The players will remember it. It was big. We were able to play and for the most part were dominating. After the season you can sit back and enjoy it."
Junior running back Mikel Leshoure played a major role in the victory, amassing a record-breaking 330 rushing yards as the Illini opened huge holes in the Northwestern defense. Zook praised both him and his blockers, especially his freshman fullback.
"Obviously he set a record. We're really proud of him. I was talking to Paul (Petrino) and Jay Prosch had an unbelievable day. He said it was about as good a game as he's ever seen a fullback play.
"Our guys got on them and stayed on them. There should be a tribute to the offensive line, Prosch, the receivers' downfield blocking. And then Mikel used his God-given ability to make a lot of things happen."
Zook was asked if Leshoure, who played sparingly as a freshman and shared time last year, had to be patient and wait his turn. In reality, Leshoure needed to make changes to get more time on the field, and he did that.
"I don't know if it's patience as much as maturity. He's matured. The last half of the season last year he began to make some big plays and did some things that gave you an idea he had a chance to be an awfully good player.
"During the winter he worked extremely hard, and this summer he worked extremely hard. A lot of that had to do with his maturing and deciding he wanted to be the best kind of back he could be."
Offensive guard Hugh Thornton was used as a blocking back on short yardage situations yesterday. Zook explained the situation.
"It was something we worked on the last few weeks. He's an athletic guy, a guy that can run. He's a 300 pounder back there blocking. We said we were gonna do whatever we had to do to get a yard or two when we needed it. We used it more than I thought we'd end up using it."
One offensive play that backfired was the receiver reverse pass. Eddie McGee's original target was double-covered, and he was hit before he could release the ball to a secondary option. The errant toss ended up being a pick-six for the Wildcats. Zook approved the play call.
"I knew it was coming, and I thought at the time it was a great call. It didn't work, obviously. We talk about that stuff on Friday night. If you're gonna call a play like that, the time we called it was the perfect time. We had them back on their haunches a little bit, and we'd worked that play a lot of times.
"He should have thrown the ball away a little bit sooner, but he was trying to make a play. It didn't work, so I wish we hadn't called it. But that's hindsight."
The Illini defense struggled against Michigan and Minnesota, but it came to play yesterday. For the most part, Zook was pleased.
"There were probably two or three plays you'd like to have back. If you take the interception for a touchdown, and then the long punt return. We went down and held them to no yards, but they kicked a field goal. That's ten points that wasn't the defense's fault.
"So I thought they played well. There were two or three plays we screwed up on a little bit. But that was a pretty good offense that did a good job as well. I thought they played pretty well."
When Zook and athletic director Ron Guenther were considering possible schedules for the past two years, it was decided to schedule a post-Thanksgiving game with Fresno State. They needed a bye week prior to the start of a juggernaut early Big 10 schedule, reducing possibilities for them later in the year.
They chose to play their last game the week after Thanksgiving so there would be less time before a possible bowl game. There were numerous complaints about the scheduling decisions last year since the Illini had a losing record and didn't receive a bowl invitation. But it becomes a blessing now thanks to the bowl bid in 2010.
"The whole reasoning why we did this a couple years ago was to play later in the year, hoping we'd have the opportunity to play in a bowl game. It gives you a chance to get rested up.
"When we went to the Rose Bowl, we wanted to give them some time off before we went back to practicing. When we come back for bowl practice, you don't have to take as much time off there. Of course, it depends on when we end up playing."
Teams that complete their seasons next weekend have a full month to wait before a bowl game. They often don't play well in the bowls because their timing is off. Having a later regular season game helps prevent that problem.
There is no question teams that play in bowls have recruiting advantages. Players want to play with winning programs, so teams in holiday bowl games gain positive publicity for their program. However, Zook is unsure whether recruiting athletes residing near the location of the game is helped.
"You go to a particular area where you are recruiting guys, they're able to come and watch practice. But you still can't talk to them. Being able to watch is not that big an advantage."
More than likely, the better bowl you attend the better your recruiting can be. The Illini won't know their bowl fate for two weeks. They need to defeat Fresno State to reach a better bowl.
"It's gonna be important that we get a seventh win. That will have a lot to do with bowl scenarios."