Big Ten Matchup in Illinois

For the first 10 weeks of the season, coach Ron Zook was quietly leading a rejuvenated Illinois football program. Last weekend, the resurgence got a lot louder.

After beating the top-ranked team in the country for the first time since 1956, the No. 20 Illini look to close their first winning regular season in six years on a high note when they host Northwestern on Saturday.

Oddsmakers from Bodog have made Illinois –13.5 point spread favorites (View College Football odds) for Saturday's game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 72% of bets for this game have been placed on Illinois –13.5 (View College Football bet percentages).

In its previous four seasons, Illinois went 2-30 against Big Ten rivals while totaling only eight wins overall. In his third season at the helm, however, Zook has helped the Illini (8-3, 5-2) to their best season since they went 10-2 overall and won the Big Ten with a 6-1 conference record in 2001.

The crowning achievement of Illinois' banner year came last Saturday with a 28-21 upset win over then-No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus. The victory attracted the national spotlight to a strong Illinois football team that had gone largely unnoticed.

"I know 'shock the world' is overused," Illini linebacker J Leman said. "It is pretty shocking to most people, but not to the guys in the locker room."

Juice Williams threw for four touchdowns, had 140 yards passing and 70 rushing against what had been the best defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Williams threw scoring passes of three, 33, eight and 31 yards, but his biggest play of the game was a 2-yard run on fourth-and-inches at the Illini 34-yard line with 6:53 remaining. Already leading by seven, the Illini ran 12 more plays on that drive to run out the clock and secure the win.

"When the game is on the line, he does what needs to be done," Zook said of Williams, named the Big Ten's offensive player of the week on Monday. "He is a tough competitor who plays the game well."

After knocking off the top team in the country, Illinois tries to improve its position for a bowl bid while turning its attention to unranked Northwestern (6-5, 3-4). Talk of an Ohio State hangover isn't getting to the Illini, who claim they won't make the same mistake twice.

After beating Penn State and Wisconsin - both ranked at the time - to earn a Top 25 spot for the first time since 2001, then-No. 18 Illinois promptly fell out of the national rankings following a 10-6 defeat to unranked Iowa on Oct. 13.

"We learned that lesson the hard way," offensive lineman Martin O'Donnell said. "I know everybody remembers that, and that's something I think is going to be harped on this week."

Last Saturday's win bumped Illinois back into the rankings for the second time this season, and the Illini are determined to extend their stay.

"We got beat by a team at Iowa that was hungry," Leman said. "Northwestern, they're going to be hungry, too."

Indeed, the Wildcats are most likely playing for a bowl bid. They became eligible last Saturday with their sixth win, but would probably need a victory in the finale to secure a chance to play in the postseason.

C.J. Bacher threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Ross Lane with 44 seconds left to give Northwestern a 31-28 win over Indiana last Saturday. It was a much-needed victory for coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose team had lost its previous two games against Purdue and Iowa by a combined 29 points.

"We've had some real highs and some real lows and to stay the course over the last month and a half of the season and to rally back and get to (win) number six is a great feeling," Fitzgerald said. "But we've got to worry about what we control and what we control is coming back to work and getting ready for next week."

"It's going to be a great challenge. We're playing very good football to go on the road against our in-state rival. It's going to be a great game."

Northwestern is 44-51-5 all-time against Illinois, but has won four in a row in the series and only one of those games was decided by fewer than 11 points. The Wildcats haven't lost to the Illini since a 31-24 home defeat on Nov. 3, 2002.

The Wildcats' current win streak against the Illini includes two wins in Champaign, where Northwestern hasn't lost since Illinois' Big Ten championship season in 2001. The Illini, though, are 4-2 at home, with the only losses coming to Missouri and Michigan - both currently ranked in the Top 25.

by: Staff Writers - Email Us

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