Illini may not get the praise, but they’re 6-0 and bowl-eligible
BY HERB GOULD email@example.com October 8, 2011 4:46PM
A.J. Jenkins, who had six receptions for 182 yards, makes the catch over Indiana cornerback Lawrence Barnett. | Andy Lyons~Getty Images
Updated: October 9, 2011 12:37AM
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The glass-half-empty skeptic will say, “We still don’t know how good Illinois is.”
The glass-half-full Illini fan will answer: “Doesn’t matter. We’re halfway to an unbeaten season.”
Yes, No. 19 Illinois is 6-0 after winning 41-20 Saturday at Indiana.
“It’s the only 6-0 we could get,” quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “We feel like we’ve played good competition. We’re just going to focus on beating the teams we’re playing against and let the experts do what experts do.”
True, the Hoosiers (1-5, 0-2 Big Ten) aren’t a major test. And, true, Illinois (6-0, 2-0) scratched out its previous three victories by nine points. But the Illini are becoming a very confident bunch.
And having whipped Baylor in the Texas Bowl last December, Illinois is poised to go to back-to-back bowls for the first time since 1991-92, when it played in the John Hancock and Holiday bowls.
The good stuff:
◆ Not only are the Illini bowl-eligible. They’re in position for a fancy finish. In a Big Ten in which some traditional powers are down, it’s looking like the Illini will be the favorite in four or five of their remaining six games.
“We did the things we had to do to win,” said coach Ron Zook, who celebrated with the solid contingent of Illini fans in attendance after the game. “We’re a good team. But for us to be a great team, we’ve got to do a lot more.”
◆ Backing up his claim of being the Big Ten’s best receiver for the second consecutive week, A.J. Jenkins had another big day, grabbing six passes for 182 yards, including touchdowns of 77 and 67 yards. So did Scheelhaase, who threw for 210 yards and three touchdowns and had 88 of Illinois’ 308 rushing yards.
◆ The Illinois defense also keeps looking more and more imposing. Seven of Indiana’s first 13 points came on a 99-yard return of the opening kickoff by Shane Wynn. The other six came on two field goals after Illinois had fumbled the ball away. The defense did a good job of preventing TDs.
The defense even delivered a 66-yard score on a fumble return by cornerback Tavon Wilson after a fierce sack by Big Ten sack leader Whitney Mercilus, who had three sacks to bring his season total to 81/2.
“We can’t listen to doubters,” Mercilus said. “Week in and week out, we just have to prove them wrong. They were saying Indiana was gonna pull an upset on us. When we hear something negative, we take it as a challenge. We’re here to stay and to stay undefeated.”