CHAMPAIGN — What's the reward for beating a ranked team? For Illinois, a spot in the Top 25. In one of the two national polls.
The Associated Press panel of media members moved Illinois to No. 24 this week (the N-G ballot has the Illini at No. 23). Illinois remains just outside the Top 25 in the USA Today coaches' poll, getting the 27th most votes.
A week ago, Illinois had no votes in either poll. But Saturday's win against previously ranked Arizona State made an impression on the panelists. One, Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Doug Lesmerises, has the Illini ranked No. 16. The next highest has Illinois at No. 20. Thirty-one of the 60 voters listed Illinois.
Illinois coach Ron Zook is a voting member of the USA Today panel. He wouldn't say Sunday if Illinois was on his ballot, but he repeated that he thought his team deserved votes.
"Obviously, it's an honor," Zook said. "But our guys understand it doesn't mean anything right now. We've got a long way to go. The one thing the game did was put us in position to help us achieve our goals."
Being ranked will bring more attention to the team. ESPN spends time talking about the Top 25 on its multiple college football broadcasts. And your school's score runs across the bottom of every sports channel.
"If anything, I would hope (Saturday) night gave our guys a little more confidence," Zook said.
Ready to go. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase won't miss any practice time this week, Zook said. Scheelhaase suffered a bruised shoulder in the fourth quarter against Arizona State. He was out of the game for one play but returned to throw the winning touchdown pass.
"He's going to be a little bit sore, but it won't be an issue," Zook said.
Zook said Scheelhaase's work might be limited today, but that was part of the preseason plans for the sophomore quarterback.
Zook said the Illini had no new injuries Saturday. Just "bumps and bruises."
Broncos busting. The Illini remember what happened to them against Western Michigan in 2008. They talked about it after Saturday's win against Arizona State.
Senior offensive guard Jack Cornell, a member of the team in 2008, was the first to bring it up.
"We played on Ford Field and got embarrassed," Zook said.
Zook expects another difficult game against the Broncos.
"I was told by some people in the summer that they probably have the best talent in the MAC," Zook said. "The quarterback's a great player. It's going to take a great effort."
Pressure cooker. Six Illinois sacks moved the team to No. 12 nationally. The bulk of the work was done by the defensive line, which accounted for 4.5 of the quarterback stops. End Whitney Mercilus had two sacks.
In the preseason, the line was considered one of the question marks on the team. Not by Zook.
"I thought all along we were going to be pretty good," Zook said.
No scoreboard watching. The Big Ten had a difficult Saturday. Michigan State lost at Notre Dame. Northwestern fell at Army. And Ohio State lost at Miami.
Zook said he hasn't paid much attention to the rest of the league, which is down to four undefeated teams (Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin).
"I'm worried about the Illinois group," Zook said.
Killing time. Illinois took the ball on downs with 1:01 left Saturday night. Arizona State had two timeouts left, so Zook knew he could have Scheelhaase down the ball on three consecutive plays.
After taking a knee twice, Scheelhaase went to his left on third down to kill extra time. There were still four seconds left as Illinois faced fourth down.
Rather than take the chance of getting a punt blocked, Zook had Scheelhaase run toward the end zone to use the final four seconds. The play cost the Illini 27 yards, which went off the team total and didn't count against Scheelhaase's total.
"I said, 'Don't stop until the clock hits zero,' " Zook said.
Illinois hosts Western Michigan on Saturday. A quick read on the Broncos:
Western Michigan improved to 2-1 with a 44-14 home win against Central Michigan. The Broncos led 24-0 at halftime thanks mostly to quarterback Alex Carder, who threw a pair of short touchdown passes. Carder finished the game 28 of 37 for 355 yards and three touchdowns. Western Michigan was especially effective on third down, converting 10 of 15 opportunities. After opening with a rain-soaked loss at Michigan, the Broncos have won two in a row and remain one of the favorites in the MAC West.
WHO TO WATCH
That will be senior receiver Jordan White, who is coming off a 13-catch, 177-yard, two-touchdown performance against Central Michigan. White, who ranks 10th in the nation in receptions per game, also returned a punt 64 yards. White has been a pain for MAC opponents for three seasons. He caught 53 passes in 2009 and followed that with a 94-catch season last year. He had 1,378 yards as a junior and caught 10 touchdown passes.
WHERE TO WATCH
For the fourth consecutive week, it’s the BTN for Illinois. The folks from the network might be back again on Oct. 1 for the Northwestern game. We’ll know that later today. The BTN continues its announcer rotation. Wayne Larrivee visits Champaign for the first time this season. Jon Jansen works as analyst and Lisa Byington will work the sidelines.
REASON TO WATCH
Last time these two got together, the Broncos pulled a shocker in Detroit, derailing Ron Zook’s team from a second consecutive bowl trip. The 23-17 decision was the first of three consecutive losses to close the season for the Illini, who finished 5-7 a year after earning a Rose Bowl berth. Illinois hadn’t played in front of a smaller crowd (12,865) since the 1940s.
BY THE NUMBERS
— While White is among the nation’s leaders in catches, Illini A.J. Jenkins isn’t far behind. Jenkins ranks 16th nationally in receptions per game and is also 16th in receiving yards. Against Arizona State, Jenkins went over 100 yards for the second time this season.
— Despite throwing his first interception of the season, Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase actually moved up in the passing efficiency rankings, climbing from eighth to sixth. His yards per attempt (10.96) ranks only behind Baylor’s Robert Griffin and Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson.
— Vic Koenning’s Illinois defense ranks among the nation’s best, standing 11th in points allowed and 17th in yards allowed.
— The Western Michigan roster includes 11 players from Illinois. There is another local connection. Freshman defensive lineman Willie Beavers originally signed with Illinois before instead enrolling at Western Michigan.