Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, top, runs toward the end zone over Arizona State safety Eddie Elder, bottom, during the first half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Illinois is 3-0 for the first time since 2001 and looks like a team to be taken seriously in the Big Ten.
The No. 24 Illini entered the Top 25 this week for the first time in three years after their 17-14 victory over then-No. 22 Arizona State.
A win over Western Michigan this week would give Illinois its first 4-0 start since the 1951 national championship season.
“They’ve caught my attention,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said Tuesday on the Big Ten coaches’ call.
Wins over Arkansas State and South Dakota State to start the season didn’t raise any eyebrows. The win over Arizona State was impressive because the defense, a major question mark entering the season, carried the day while Illinois’ offense generated just 240 yards.
“There’s no question, you play a Pac-12 opponent and beat them, it was great for our program,” Illini coach Ron Zook said. “Our guys went into that game knowing they could win if they did the things the coaches asked them to do.”
Illinois beat a ranked nonconference team for the first time in 10 tries and is on a four-game win streak that started with a 38-14 victory over Baylor in the Texas Bowl.
Bielema said the win over Arizona State, a team the Badgers beat 20-19 in Madison last year, showed Illinois is a legitimate Big Ten contender.
“We beat (ASU) on a blocked extra point, and I think they had a good team a year ago,” Bielema said. “It speaks volumes about how good Illinois is at this point.”
An Illinois defense that lost three players to the NFL draft sacked Sun Devils quarterback Brock Osweiler six times and intercepted two of his passes. Sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown was named Big Ten defensive player of the week after making seven tackles and 1.5 sacks. He also had an interception and forced another.
Glenn Foster has made a smooth move from end to tackle to help compensate for the loss of first-round pick Corey Liuget.
The defense, allowing under 11 points a game, hasn’t been scored on after any of Illinois’ four turnovers and has forced eight takeaways that have led to 24 points.
“I knew defensively we’d be a lot better than people would give us credit for,” said Zook, who is 54-59 in seven seasons at Illinois and has spent some years fending off speculation about his future with the Illinois. “We lost guys who were good players, but we knew we had some pretty good players replacing them. The biggest question I had was how soon the defense would come around.”
Sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has improved as a passer. He’s completed 33 of 46 passes (72 percent) for 504 yards. He’s thrown 16 touchdown passes against two interceptions the last 10 games.
“The defense lost good players, but they’re big-play oriented,” Bielema said. “And their quarterback makes special things happen.”
A.J. Jenkins, who caught Scheelhaase’s game-winning 16-yard touchdown pass against Arizona State in the fourth quarter, is second in the Big Ten with 7.3 catches and 107 yards a game.
Jason Ford and Scheelhaase lead a rushing attack averaging 223 yards a game.
Illinois has a favorable conference schedule, with home games against Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin at home and Indiana, Purdue, Penn State and Minnesota on the road.
“Of the eight Big Ten games, four at home, you probably would pick the four that we have at home if you have your druthers,” Zook said. “I’m not going to apologize for our schedule after the one we played the last five or six years.”