At 5-0, Illini thinking big
CHAMPAIGN — Yes, 5-0.
Not an easy 5-0, mind you. Lots of nails bitten down to the nub. Lots of coaches losing hair. Or watching it turn white.
But winning angst. The kind where a fumble that could have been a disaster turns into a teachable moment. The kind where the confident receiver gets jokingly jabbed for telling it like it is.
"It's making this program into something that it should have been before," Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus said. "We have a big responsibility among the team to keep the success rolling."
"It's a great feeling being 5-0," Illinois offensive tackle Jeff Allen said. "It's great to beat a rival."
Illinois didn't hide its feelings after a second consecutive win against Northwestern. With "Sweet Home Chicago" blaring in the background — a reference to Northwestern calling itself "Chicago's Big Ten team" — the Illini hoisted the Land of Lincoln Trophy. The scoreboard read "The state of Illinois' undefeated team."
"We're Chicago's Big Ten team," Illinois Bandit Michael Buchanan said. "We've been Chicago's Big Ten team. I love seeing the fans excited. I love seeing my teammates excited. And I love watching some of the guys holding up that trophy. It was a little heavy for me."
"It's good," Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. "More importantly than that, we're 1-0 in our conference. That's exactly where we wanted to be."
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald watched his team squander a chance to go to 3-1. Watched his team blow an 18-point lead.
"We've got a football team that I believe has the makings of winning a bunch of football games if we don't beat ourselves, and that's what happened today," Fitzgerald said. "I'm not trying to discredit Illinois. Illinois played well. Illinois made plays, but when you've got young guys making mistakes, it's on us as coaches."
It's October and Illinois is keeping good company: Oklahoma, LSU, Boise State are now peers in the undefeated ranks. That number of perfect records is starting to dwindle, down to 14 — including Illinois — with Stanford, a potential 15th, playing a late game against UCLA.
"We know how to win," record-breaking receiver A.J. Jenkins said. "That's what it is. We're just going to keep fighting, keep pushing."
They did it the hard way. They overcame obstacles, both of their own doing and those thrown up by Northwestern.
"We're used to being in tight games," Buchanan said. "It's really going to help us toward the end of the season. We would like to blow teams out. I feel we're a player-led team, and we're able to keep our composure when we're down."
A week after escaping with a win against Western Michigan and two weeks after a comeback victory against Arizona State, Illinois found itself in an 18-point hole. With the fans looking for any reason to stick around.
But Jenkins and Scheelhaase convinced them to stay. First, with a 33-yard touchdown pass that cut the margin to 28-17. Then, with a 50-yard touchdown pass to make it 28-23 early in the fourth quarter.
Donovonn Young plowed over from the 1 with 6:53 left to give Illinois the lead. But the game had plenty of twists and turns. Remember, nothing is ever easy.
The Illini had knocked Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa from the game. His replacement, Kain Colter, led a drive to the Illinois 39. But Colter got dragged down by Mercilus on a fourth-down run and the Illini had the ball with 3:04 left.
If life was easy for the 5-0 team, it would have banged out a couple of first down and ran out the clock. Remember, nothing is ever easy.
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wanted to run the ball. For at least the first two plays. He only got one. Jenkins, the receiver with the giant day, missed a block, Jason Ford got smacked and fumbled the ball away to the Wildcats. Five plays and 36 yards later, Northwestern had the lead. Again.
The 1:15 left on the clock was about 14 seconds too much for Northwestern. Scheelhaase found Jenkins for 28 yards and went 22 on his own. The Wildcats helped with a pass-interference call in the end zone, setting up the winning score.
"For them, it's just like practice," Zook said.
Scheelhaase went 2 yards on first down, 1 more on second and found a gap for the final yard. The officials waited a bit to put their arms in the air.
"Finally, there in the fourth quarter, these guys just said, 'That's enough,' and they were going to go play the way they're capable of playing," Zook said. "You've got to give the coaches a lot of credit. They did a great job of staying in it. Then, the guys went out and did it."
Zook wasn't surprised by the comeback. They have become commonplace.
"There's not panic," Zook said. "They believe in themselves. They believe in the coaches. And they believe they're going to get it done."
Afterward, the Illinois players hugged and they sang. Offensive guard Jack Cornell, who has turned into the voice of reason in the locker room each week, grabbed receiver Spencer Harris and gave him a hug on the way into the locker room.
Linebacker Ian Thomas grabbed a pair of blue sunglasses during the homecoming pep rally. After Saturday's game, he wrote "5-0" on each lens.
Had he done it before the game?
"No, no, no," Thomas said. "I don't want to jinx anything like that."