Illini Beat No. 5 Wisconsin

Champaign, IL - History was made Saturday at Memorial Stadium as the Fighting Illini football team defeated the Wisconsin Badgers, 31-26, before a rabid and boistrous fandom.  Playing in heat and humidity more common in August than October, the Illini withstood a furious Badger rally to pull out the win.

The 5-1 Illini are on a roll that is forcing pundits to check the record book for comparisons. This is the first time Illinois has defeated a team ranked in the top five in the nation since their thrilling 14-13 win over USC in Los Angeles. It is the first home victory over a top 5 team since Illinois' 31-28 triumph over Ohio State in 1985. And most amazing of all, this is the first time since Coach Ray Eliot's final two games in 1959 that the Illini have defeated two straight ranked foes.

The Illini are now on the verge of their first winning season since their 2001 Big Ten Champions. This season is quite a contrast from the five previous years, and the Illini fandom feels like it has finally been vindicated for its support during the down times. But more than the fans, Coach Ron Zook, his outstanding coaching staff and players are finally being rewarded for their hard work and dedication to turning around a moribund program.

"I'm so proud of these players," shares Zook. "I'm so happy for the seniors. When we started 2 and 1/2 years ago, I said we needed everybody in the room. We talked about it all last year, about how we wanted the seniors to experience this. In the locker, I hugged Martin O'Donnell. We didn't say anything. But when we looked each other in the eyes, I knew what he was thinking, and he knew what I was thinking."

Indeed, the seniors on this team are providing great leadership. They have experienced an endless stream of failures, but they haven't given up on themselves. They have helped transform a doormat into a championship caliber team. Senior safety Kevin Mitchell, who played an invaluable role in the game with an interception, four pass breakups and five solo tackles, serves as spokesperson for his senior teammates.

"When Coach Turner recruited us, we were one of his best classes. He said in three, four years we would be something, and we're something. With this added talent, we've increased our speed and everything like that, and it's been paying off. As a defense, we gave up some yards. But the way the whole team fought back, as a whole we just had a little more power. Before, we would just lie down and say we lost. But now, we go for the win."

Coach Zook is understandably elated with the positive turn of events, but he hasn't forgotten past struggles. He was asked how he kept his confidence in the face of all previous adversity.

"It's hard," confides Zook. "You have to have a strong belief, a strong faith, that what you're doing is correct. You have to be consistent and have the confidence of your staff and players that you're doing the right things."

Now, roles are reversed Illinois. From being the perennial hunter, hoping to knock off someone, they now find themselves with a target on their backs. Now, other teams want to make their seasons by beating the upstart Illini. Coach Zook admitted this is a new experience for all concerned.

"This is all uncharted territory for us. It's going to be very important that we do manage this correctly. With no open dates, I talked to the team about taking Monday off since we have a big game coming up. And they said 'no, no coach.' Of course, they may have just been caught up in the moment, but I think this shows they are hungry. It's 'hungry confidence.' We know we're not there yet, but we feel like we're making progress."

They are indeed making progress. The Illini offense continues to show power, especially early in games, and the defense continues to rise up when necessary to keep opponents at bay. It is a total team effort, as Zook explains.

"The great thing about our team, the guys kept coming back. The coaches did a great job. They would not let them relax, would not let them give in, and that's just another step towards maturity."

After an exchange of punts to open the game, the Illini took the ball at their own 20 yard line and marched down the field with relative ease. Two short passes complimented the Illini's powerful running game. Rashard Mendenhall gobbled up 30 yards on one carry, and he later ran the final 32 yards to paydirt. Six plays, 80 yards, and the Illini led 7-0.

Star Wisconsin receiver Travis Beckum had two of his 11 catches on the day on their next possession, but that drive faltered when kicker Travis Mehlhaff missed his first field goal of the year. From the beginning, the Illini stuffed the Badgers' vaunted ground game for short yardage, forcing them to pass more than usual.

On the Illini's first possession of the second quarter, a big 26 yard completion from Juice Williams to Arrelious Benn helped set up Jason Reda for a 50 yard field goal with the wind. This made the score 10-0.

Wisconsin continued to move the ball with precision passing, but their inability to compliment the passes with a strong running game made them somewhat one-dimensional. Tyler Donovan is an outstanding quarterback, and he has some excellent receivers with which to work. But Mike Ware stuffed star running back P. J. Hill for a two yard loss, and good pass defense kept the Badgers out of field goal range.

Illinois began its next drive at their own 25 yard line. A third down screen to Mendenhall netted 15 important yards. Perhaps the biggest play was a long sideline completion to fullback Russ Weil, who came back for a ball slightly underthrown and jumped up over the Wisconsin defender to complete a 31yard play. Juice's five yard pass to Mendenhall gave Rashard his second touchdown of the day and the Illini a 17-0 lead.

Of course, Wisconsin is too good a team to fold its tents. They took advantage of some good fortune to get back into the game. On their next drive, Donovan passed long to Beckum. Two Illini defenders tipped the ball and almost intercepted it, but it fell into Beckum's arms while he lay on the ground for a 40 yard gain. Illinois' defense stiffened at that point, forcing a successful 39 yard Mehlhaff field goal.

The Badgers were back in business after an Illini three-and-out series plus mediocre punt. Donovan was hot and completed passes to three different receivers on the drive. But again the Illini came up big with their backs to the wall. Freshman defensive tackle Josh Brent and sophomore defensive end Doug Pilcher shared a sack to force a 26 field goal. The score was thus 17-6 at the half.

Wisconsin is a second half team, and they proved it on their first drive of the second half by driving 81 yards to score their first touchdown of the game. An important pass from Donovan to Beckum kept the drive going. Illini freshman Martez Wilson made a fine open field tackle to sack Donovan, but happiness turned to sorrow on the next play. An Illini safety bit on a fake reverse, giving Badger freshman receiver Kyle Jefferson enough space to nab a 43 yard touchdown strike.

With the score now 17-13, the Illini refused to back down. Showing bounce-back ability common among winning teams, the Illini marched 79 yards to match the Badgers' score. Juice completed an 8 yard pass to Benn, but the rest of the yardage was accomplished by the run. Juice ran options for 24 and 25 yard gains, but it was Rashard Mendenhall's power and speed that did most of the rest of the work. On a great third down call, Mendenhall powered the remaining five yards to paydirt, making the score 24-13.

Not to be outdone, the Badgers came storming back again by finally getting their running game going. The biggest play on the drive was a 30 yard run by Hill as he broke a tackle and got to the sideline. Hill, Donovan, and freshman backup running back Zach Brown took care of the rest of the yardage, with Hill's one yard plunge making the score a close 24-19. Senior linebackers J. Leman and Antonio Steele stuffed Wisconsin's two point conversion try to prevent a field goal from tying the game.

Both teams battled into the fourth quarter with neither one willing to give up. Wisconsin continued to have success passing the ball, especially to their superstar Beckum, but the Illini rose up when most needed. Kevin Mitchell stopped their next possession with an important interception on their own 16 yard line. And following a deflected Anthony Santella punt that put the Badgers in business again, Vontae Davis leaped high on the sideline to intercept a Donovan pass intended for the 6'-4" Beckum.

Taking over on their own 29 yard line, the Illini marched down the field without their freshman star Benn, who reinjured his shoulder as a Wisconsin defender pulled his arm after a stiffarm attempt. A big play in the drive was a 24 yard option scamper by Juice. After Daniel Dufrene ran for four yards, Juice strained his knee running another option and was replaced by confident backup Eddie McGee.

Mendenhall ran for five yards, and Dufrene exploded for runs of five and 15 yards, placing the ball at the five yard line. McGee then called his own number on an option, running the last five yards untouched into the end zone. The resulting 31-19 lead proved sufficient to put the game out of reach for the Badgers.

Still, Wisconsin fought back as a team with a 14 game winning streak is expected to do. With the Illini fans on their feet and yelling louder than ever, Donovan and his mates demonstrated uncommon poise as they completed one pass after another. Donovan's 9 yard pass to tight end Garrett Graham reduced the Illini lead to 31-26.

Wisconsin tried an onside kick with time running out, but Kyle Hudson clutched it securely. The Illini coaches were unsure what the Badgers might do on the play because they hadn't had to try an onside kick for a long time. But their "hands team" came through when needed.

Still, it was nervous time as the Badgers still had three timeouts and could stop the clock after each Illini running attempt. After three rushes netted nine + yards, Coach Zook decided to go for the first down that would allow them to run out the clock. McGee sneaked the necessary yardage, and the game was over.

Coach Zook explained his decision to run rather than punt on fourth down on the Wisconsin 35 yard line.

"I told Locksley we have to go for the win. Even though I felt very good about our defense, that's a good offense and the quarterback is an unbelieveable player. I think he's one of the best quarterbacks in the country. I just didn't want to give up a big play. It was close, and I thought we could get it."

The ecstatic winners continued what is now a victory tradition by rushing up into the North end zone seating to share their success with their fellow students. Nearly everyone in the crowd remained for some time, yelling and celebrating one of the best victories ever witnessed in Memorial Stadium.

Wisconsin outgained the Illini for the game 512 yards to 410 yards. But their running game gained only 127 yards as the Illini forced them to pass repeatedly. Donovan was an impressive 27 for 49 for 392 yards, with 160 of those yards going to Beckum. But P. J. Hill, who was Offensive Player of the Week in the Big Ten for his performance against Michigan State last week, managed only 86 yards against the hard-hitting Illini defense.

For the Illini, Rashard Mendenhall continues to prove he is one of the best backs in the country by gaining 160 yards on only 19 carries and two rushing touchdowns. That's an 8.4 yard average per rush, and it embarrassed an experienced and strong Badger defense. Coach Zook had high praise for his star after the game.

"We said from the beginning he's a great back, and if Rashard plays the way he is capable of playing, we have a chance to be a pretty good offensive football team. At the end there, particularly when Rejus was hurt there, I went up to him and told him 'put the team on your back, it's all yours.' And he did it.

"I'm so proud of Rashard. I told Rashard the night before I left for the Big Ten meetings, 'Rashard, I'm going to put a little pressure on you, and I'll make sure you're ok with it and will accept it. You have all that God-given ability. If you have the kind of year we all think you are capable of having and do the kinds of things the coaches are telling you to do, we have a chance to be pretty special on offense.' He just keeps getting better. We're starting to see the Rashard Mendenhall we all thought he could be when he came out of high school. Reggie Mitchell has done an unbelieveable job, and Rashard has responded."

Juice Williams was outstanding running the offense, especially the option attack. His good decision-making is a big part of Rashard's success, and it freed Juice for 92 rushing yards in fourteen attempts. Williams was also efficient with a ball-control passing game, netting 121 yards and one touchdown through the air on 12 completions in 19 attempts. Arrelious Benn was the leading pass receiver with five catches for 51 yards, and Mendenhall added 33 yards on four receptions and another touchdown.

Senior middle linebacker J Leman again led the Illini defense with 12 tackles. Justin Harrison, Antonio Steel, Vontae Davis and Dere Hicks were next in line as they had to make tackles repeatedly downfield against Wisconsin receivers. Mitchell called it a "bend-but-dont-break" defense, and perhaps it is.

Afterwards, Co-Defensive Coordinator Curt Mallory praised Wisconsin's offense while expressing joy for his seniors.

"Those receivers were athletic, and Travis Beckum made a couple of plays. I thought in the second half they did a great job with their pass attack. They hit a deep one on us on a play-action reverse. Obviously, we've got to stay deep on that. I'm so happy for the seniors. You talk about J Leman, Chris Norwell, Kevin Mitchell, Justin Harrison. I'm just so ecstatic for those kids. This was just a super win for Illinois football."

Fellow defensive coordinator Dan Disch explained Illini defensive strategy.

"It was hot out there today. They're big up front. Especially when it turned into kind of a passing game, you're chasing the quarterback trying to get some kind of pressure. They do a lot of max protecting. They kept a lot of guys in, so we couldn't blitz them. We stayed back to cover. That was big that we could roll those guys in (the defensive line). I believe we rolled in 10 of them, and that kept them fresh. And that's why in the fourth quarter we had guys fresh and not dieing like we had done in the past.

"If you can't get to them, you might as well sit back and cover. We tried to mix it up, but it soon became apparent they were going to keep guys back to protect, so we tried to match it with coverage.

"We're not close to where we want to be. We've made progress. But it is satisfying. All the time we've put in as players and coaches, all the recruiting. We told them it would pay off and it's beginning to pay off. From that aspect it's satisfying, but you're never satisfied because we know how close it is to being back where we were. And we don't ever want to get back there again. For some of the older guys, it's a good feeling."

One technique employed by Disch and Mallory was to use freshman Martez Wilson at three positions within the defense.

"This week, they had a little package for me," explains Wilson. "They would sometimes put me at linebacker or safety, and in another package they put me in a dime, which is kind of like a defensive back. This was just to get me on the field and mess up their blocking schemes. I'll play wherever they put me on the field."

Disch praised the young colt afterward.

"He's getting better every week. I'm proud of him. He's come in and learned the defense and contributed in ways we thought he could. He's just got to keep getting better, and we'll keep using him. That open field tackle, he's a gifted kid, and I don't think we have even tapped the surface of what he's capable of doing. We've tried to utilize the things he does, such as run around and tackle. We try to put him into positions he can do, and he did a good job."

Freshman Josh Brent also received more playing time this week, subbing in at both tackle spots. His sack was one of only two on the day for the Illini, and his best days are ahead of him. He spoke humbly but eloquently about his defense afterward.

"I was sort of switching around, giving both sides of the line a different look. It feels good to get playing time. We had to rotate a lot of guys. It was a hot day, and they have a very good offensive line, so we used our depth to advantage. We're continuing to get better every game. We're getting close, but we're not there. Our d-line definitely needs to work on getting pressure on the quarterback. Our secondary did a great job. Our offense got rolling pretty good. But there's still some things we need to work on to take that next step."

Cornerback Vontae Davis continues to be a standout defensively, although Coach Zook wonders if his confidence sometimes causes him to take unnecessary risks.

"Vontae is going to be a special player. He has a lot of tools. But sometimes it feels like he baits people. He thought the one catch hit the ground. But I knew they would go back to it, and I had a strong feeling he would go up and get it. He's not afraid to take chances. He has confidence in his ability."

Offensively, Coach Zook singled out Russ Weil for special praise after his big pass reception and powerhouse block to spring Mendenhall on one of his touchdowns.

"He's just coming into his own. He had the high ankle sprain in Camp Rantoul, and it was probably three weeks before he could get back to full stride. He's a leader and he's a senior. We need him there, and I'm so happy for him for the job he's doing."

The Illini continue to eat up big chunks of yardage with their running game even though other teams are geared to stop them and even with a passing attack that has not yet reached fruition. Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley describes the offensive effort.

"We ran our offense and executed it for the most part for a high percentage. Our offensive line did a great job, Rashard did a great job, Juice made great decisions with the football, and when Eddie came in he made some good decisions.

"At halftime, we saw some plays that gave us some big plays in the first half. And we basically ran those plays from different sets and formations (in the second half). They never answered it. Running the ball is what we do best, and we have to continue to find ways to come up with a new wrinkle here and there.

"We've accomplished some things, but we still know we have a lot of football ahead of us. Offensively, there's some things we've got to get fixed and fixed quick for us to have the balance and be the type of offense I want us to be. We were able to hit some play action passes today, like Russ Weil on the boundary with a wheel route. As long as we continue to manufacture some big plays, as they continue to commit guys to stop the run, that's what we're going to continue to do until the passing game comes along."

Locksley has total confidence in McGee should Juice need replacing.

"That's what a backup quarterback does. He knows going into the game he's always got to be prepared and ready to go out and play. He gets his reps during the week, he has an opportunity to watch the film and go through the game plan. He's worked himself to where he's 1A and 1B with Juice. In my mind, we don't have to change what we do offensively."

McGee showed maturity beyond his years late in the game, just like he did when interviewed later.

"I was just told to stay on my toes in case anything happened. I'm a very confident person, so I just let my confidence win out."

Eddie summarized the feelings of the entire team about starting the season 5-1 and 3-0 in the Big Ten.

"Oh man, it's big, really big. The number five team Wisconsin is a great team, so we just wanted to prove that we are one of the best teams in the nation also. So we can get more respect and can showcase what we can do. We've been down under the radar for awhile because of the past two years. But we all know we're good, so hopefully the nation sees we're good too."

They are beginning to. But there is no letdown in the Big Ten. Every game is a major challenge. Next up for the Illini is Iowa on the road, and that will be a major challenge.

"In the Big Ten, you'd better be strapped up and ready to go," understates Zook.

The Illini are back! There's no doubt about it. However, the Wisconsin game was not an ending but a continuation of a process that must see the Illini continue to grow and develop.

"We've talked all winter, and spring and summer that we've got to stand up," describes Zook. "It's alot of work we've put in. Are we going to do what we did last year, or are we going to show improvement?"

It looks like the preferred path is improvement. And lots of it.

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