The Illini have teased with big seasons in the past, reaching the Rose Bowl four years ago only to slide back to the bottom half of the Big Ten and out of site and leaving faith in coach Ron Zook just as hard to find. Wins over Arkansas State and South Dakota State weren't going to change anybody's mind. That could come Saturday night, when Illinois hosts No. 22 Arizona State in Memorial Stadium in the next chance to boost public perception and sell more tickets while regaining some respect nationally.

CHAMPAIGN -- It's been hard to get emotionally attached to Illinois football.


The Illini have teased with big seasons in the past, reaching the Rose Bowl four years ago only to slide back to the bottom half of the Big Ten and out of site and leaving faith in coach Ron Zook just as hard to find. Wins over Arkansas State and South Dakota State weren't going to change anybody's mind.


That could come Saturday night, when Illinois hosts No. 22 Arizona State in Memorial Stadium in the next chance to boost public perception and sell more tickets while regaining some respect nationally.


"Our guys understand if we're going to be involved in the Big Ten (race), have something to do with that, this is a game where we're going to have to show up and play the way we're capable of playing," Zook said. "I don't think there's any question these guys are fired up about it."


Illinois hasn't started a season 3-0 since 2001, when the Illini last defeated a Pac-12 Conference team. A loss wouldn't irreparably damage the season, but this opportunity can't be overlooked.


Said Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning: "Everybody on our team, everybody in the stands, the cheerleaders, everybody in this whole organization is gonna have to be at their best on Saturday.''


The first breakthrough win is a big deal, just ask Michigan after the wild one over Notre Dame gave the Wolverines some extra mojo in their rebuilding. (Oops. They don't rebuild at Michigan.) Arizona State's 37-30 win over then-No. 21 Missouri last week propelled the Sun Devils into the AP top 25 for the first time since 2008 -- the last time the Illini were ranked.


"The bottom line is Illinois is very similar to us,'' said Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson, who led Miami to two national championships but rides a hot seat in his fifth year in Tempe. "The only difference between us and them is we're in the top 25 and they're not. They feel if they beat us, they'll get that opportunity.''


It's easy to imagine where this season could lead if the Illini prove themselves against a respected team.


"This game could definitely be one of the things that turns the corner for us,'' Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. "You always look back on certain times and say, ‘Oh, that win got us to this point.' ''


After Illinois failed to beat Missouri in each of the past four seasons, the season's first great challenge comes against the team that beat Missouri. The Sun Devils, who lost 20-19 at Wisconsin last season, even remind the Illini of Mizzou.


"It's kind of like the Missouri type of offense that we're used to playing,'' said cornerback Tavon Wilson. "This is a game that we feel we can open some eyes.''


If so, the Illini need to do a better job on Sun Devils quarterback Brock Osweiler than they did with Blaine Gabbert and Chase Daniel.


Osweiler's passing casts a shadow as large is his 6-foot-8 frame. In wins over UC-Davis and Missouri, he completed 74.1 of his pass attempts for 615 yards and five touchdowns with one interception. Against Missouri, he threw for 353 yards and three touchdowns while running for another score. Not bad for a player whose first commitment went to Gonzaga basketball.


"We'll jump up and try to bite him on the leg somewhere,'' said Koenning.


Watching the Arizona State-Missouri game while sequestered in the team hotel last weekend, the Illini kept an eye on Sun Devils middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict, labeled as the meanest player in college football. The unpredictable Burfict is a big hitter, even in his own locker room: he was involved in a preseason fist fight with a teammate, according to reports.


"From what I hear, he's got some pretty sweet YouTube videos,'' Scheelhaase said. "We'll see if he's bringing it every play. Our guys are looking forward to getting after him.''


Illini fullback Jay Prosch is the man assigned to keep Burfict from head hunting. The blocking back who cleared the way for Mikel Leshoure's record-setting season a year ago, the 6-0, 250-pound Prosch will get some help, said offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, as the Illini attempt to learn if 6-3, 252-pound Burfict is as good as his reputation.


"Between five linemen, the fullback and the tight end, we'll take turns having everybody hit him as hard as they can, and we'll find out,'' Petrino said.


There's a lot to find out Saturday night.


John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.


*****


Illinois (2-0) vs. Arizona State (2-0)


When: 6 p.m. Saturday


Where: Memorial Stadium (60,670), Champaign


Series record: Arizona State leads 2-0


Last meeting: Arizona State 21-16 (1988)


Rankings: Arizona State No. 22


Radio: 


TV: Big Ten Network


The line: 


Coaches: Ron Zook, 30-45 in seventh year at Illinois, 53-59 in 10th year overall; Dennis Erickson, 27-24 in fifth year at Arizona State, 175-89-1 in 23rd year overall.


NCAA rankings: Illinois offense -- rushing 8th, 283.0; passing 75th, 213.0; scoring 19th, 44.5; total 18th, 496.0. Illinois defense -- rushing 6th, 42.5; passing 34th, 180.5; scoring 13th, 9.0; total 13th, 223.0. Arizona State offense -- rushing 55th, 160.5; passing 14th, 344.0; scoring 26th, 42.5; total 16th, 504.5. Arizona State defense -- rushing 64th, 135.0; passing 76th, 257.0; scoring 56th, 22.0; total 65th, 372.0.


Notable: Arizona State is the first non-conference opponent from a power conference to play in Memorial Stadium since Syracuse in 2006. Illinois returns the game to Arizona State next season. … The Illini lost their last five games to Pac-12 teams. The last win came in 2001, a 44-17 victory at California. … After the blowout of FCS South Dakota State, Illinois leads the Big Ten in scoring offense, total offense and rushing offense. … Illini wide receiver Darius Millines (concussion) is expected to play after wearing a red jersey in practice. … Arizona State flew to Champaign on Thursday to avoid the rush of heading east and battling earlier time zones, Erickson said. … Child identification kits will be distributed on the way out. The program is sponsored by the American Football Coaches Association and the FBI.


Quotable: "We don't care who they beat or who they played. We've got them at our house. We're looking forward to the challenge.'' -- Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.


Prediction: Illinois 27, Arizona State 24