Respectable start, favorable schedule put Illinois in good spot for a bowl berth. Now the Illini must finish over the final six games.
CHAMPAIGN -- This is where Illinois football can make a run for it.
With the most improved defense in the Big Ten Conference, a capable running game and a favorable schedule in the season’s second half, Illinois looks in good shape to earn a bowl berth for the first time since the 2007 season. That's the challenge for Illini coach Ron Zook heading into a key two-game homestand.
For the league's most pleasant surprise, this is no time for a sigh of relief after surviving a rugged three-game stretch to start conference play. Illinois (3-3 overall, 1-2 in the Big Ten) plays three of its next four games at home, beginning with the homecoming game against Indiana (4-2, 0-2) on Saturday (11 a.m., BTN).
Q: What will Zook be pushing this week?
A: The Illini built some confidence with three wins in the season's first half, and the losses came against teams with a combined 19-1 record. There are no teams from this week's top 25 on the Illini schedule the rest of the way, but there's no time to relax and start looking at the bowl lineup. That was the message upon the return from the 26-6 loss to Michigan State.
“We’ve made improvements in all areas,” Zook said. “They also understand we’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got to continue to do the same things, worry about us and get better. There’s enough leadership on this football team. They know there’s no chance to exhale.”
Q: What are Illinois’ chances at gaining bowl eligibility?
A: The Illini put themselves in a good position. Now it's a matter of finishing the job.
Indiana can score behind quarterback Ben Chappell but ranks last in the Big Ten in rushing offense and rushing defense. Purdue, which comes to Illinois on Oct. 30, lost the starting quarterback, running back and top wide receiver to season-ending injuries. After a trip to Michigan -- Will Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson make it through the whole season? -- the Illini host Minnesota. On Sunday, the school fired Gophers coach Tim Brewster and named an interim coach.
Then there’s the Wrigley Field game against Northwestern, a Wildcats home game but likely a split crowd on gameday, plus the trip to Fresno State to end the regular season. If the Illini can't find three more wins out of that, it will be a big disappointment.
It comes down to the ability of the offense to score points and take some stress off the defense.
Q: Is quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase OK mentally and physically?
A: After throwing three interceptions vs. the Spartans, Scheelhaase will bounce back with a glass-half-full attitude, Zook said. Scheelhaase also passed all tests for a concussion after a big hit late that knocked him from the game. Guard Jack Cornell is expected to practice after a mild knee sprain against the Spartans.
Q: How much responsibility does running back Mikel Leshoure carry on his shoulders?
A: With inexperienced quarterback who will likely endure some up-and-down games as he continues to mature, the Illini rely upon Leshoure to carry the load and decrease the stress on a rookie under center. Leshoure wanted to become the feature back, increasing his carries from a year ago. He also faces more expectations in a run-oriented offense.
After Leshoure ran well against Ohio State, he enjoyed “the best game since he came to the University of Illinois'” against Penn State, Zook said. “We need him to play like that all the time. He was beat up a little bit probably (against Michigan State). I don’t think he ran with the same kind of intensity.”
Leshoure finished with 83 yards on 23 carries against the Spartans, only the second time he failed to reach 100 yards in a game this season. With backup Jason Ford’s workload dwindling, Leshoure has plenty of work ahead of him.