Illini ponder possibility of 3-0 start

Head Coach Ron Zook looks toward the scoreboard at Memorial Stadium during the game against San Jose State on Saturday. Troy Stanger

Head Coach Ron Zook looks toward the scoreboard at Memorial Stadium during the game against San Jose State on Saturday. Troy Stanger

By Derek Barichello

JJ Simmons’ eyes lit up at Tuesday’s press conference when he was asked about a possible 3-0 start for the Illini.

“It would be awesome,” the offensive lineman said, smiling. “I haven’t experienced a winning streak since high school.”

Wide receiver DeJaun Warren agreed.

“To beat a ranked team and go 3-0 to start the Big Ten would be excellent.”

Warren admitted he thought about it a little bit before the season started.

“We try to take it one game at a time,” Warren said, “but some of the guys thought about it.”

For just a moment, Illinois and 3-0 had a nice ring to it, then came the wake-up call – No. 15 California.

Winning number three would mean the Illini would have to go into Berkeley and beat a team that came only one win away from competing for a national title last season.

Not only that, the Illini have not defeated a ranked opponent on the road since 2001, when they traveled to Columbus and defeated the 25th-ranked Buckeyes, 34-22.

“They are a very, very talented team,” head coach Ron Zook said. “With just their offensive line, the sun will go away when they stand up.”

The last time the Illini started 3-0, in 2001, they finished the season 10-2 and advanced to the Sugar Bowl.

So, it is hard for the team to get too excited just yet, but there is hope.

The Illini need to look no further than the other sideline Saturday for an example of it.

In head coach Jeff Tedford’s first season at Cal, he inherited a 1-10 team and made them 7-5. In that season, Cal went into its third game at No. 15 Michigan State undefeated and won.

“I remember when they came into our place and beat us in that close game,” Simmons said. “You could see them go up and us go down. It helps us knowing that we can do it, too. If they can do it, we can do it, we can too.”

Tedford said what defined that team was believing in the system, the same thing that has defined the Illini so far.

“We continually press and force and push for them to believe,” Zook said.

The Illini have drawn strength from their first two games, overcoming a 20-point deficit against Rutgers and a poor start against San Jose State.

“Particularly, because they’ve had the attitude in the past that ‘oh gosh, here we go again,’ they’ve been able to fight through that,” Zook said.

He admits the Illini will need to improve if they are going to pull off the upset, but said the tone has already been set in practice.

“(Monday’s) practice, they were very into it,” Zook said. “They are excited about the opportunity to play an awfully good opponent.”

Even if the Illini come up short, the coaching staff believes the game will be an opportunity to see where the team is at heading into the Big Ten season, an opportunity not limited to the coaches, but for fans as well.

“It’s hard to jump on the bandwagon,” Simmons said. “With wins over Rutgers and San Jose State, I’m not sure I would jump on the bandwagon myself, but 3-0 maybe, or if we played them tough, that would get people to start believing.”