Illini refuse to overlook tumbling Hawkeyes

Illinois quarterback Juice Williams rushes the ball through the Wisconsin defense at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Illinois travels to Iowa this week. Erica Magda

Adam Babcock

Illinois quarterback Juice Williams rushes the ball through the Wisconsin defense at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Illinois travels to Iowa this week. Erica Magda

By Mike Theodore

After two successful weeks defending Memorial Stadium from top-ranked opponents, the Illini football team is going back on the road.

Illinois will travel to Iowa City this weekend looking to remain unbeaten in Big Ten play and win its sixth consecutive game.

“Iowa is a good football team and if we’re not ready to play, we’re going to be in trouble,” head coach Ron Zook said.

Winning at Kinnick Stadium has not been an easy task for opponents. The Hawkeyes have won 28 of their last 33 home games and have the 16th best home winning percentage for the last five seasons.

Iowa has dropped five straight games, including a 27-7 defeat last Saturday in Happy Valley against Penn State, in which the Hawkeyes managed only 48 yards on the ground and allowed 489 yards to the Penn State offense. The Nittany Lions ran 25 more plays on offense than the Hawkeyes, forcing them to punt 11 times.

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With the two teams seemingly going in opposite directions, Zook is not about to underestimate the Hawkeyes or look beyond this Saturday.

“I think any time you’re in proving stage – and I think our program is in a proving stage – then people are going to keep questioning you until you finally knock the last one down,” Zook said. “Obviously right now it’s imperative to put all of our attention all of our focus on Iowa because number one, they’re a good football team and number two, if we don’t we’ll be right back where we were.”

The Illini entered the national polls this week for the first time since 2001 and could earn bowl eligibility with one more victory.

“Any improvement we’ve made will be for naught if we don’t continue to be prepared and do the things were capable of doing,” Zook said.

In last week’s defeat of the then-No. 5 Badgers, quarterback Juice Williams left the game in the fourth quarter and did not return after hyperextending his knee and freshman receiver and kick returner Arrelious Benn left after aggravating his shoulder trying to stiff-arm an opponent. Zook expects both players to be fine and said Benn’s injury is not as bad as the original injury suffered in a preseason scrimmage.

The dependable Skokie Swift

Running back Rashard Mendenhall has scored a touchdown in nine straight games. His streak is second in the nation to Rutgers’ Ray Rice who has found the end zone in 13 straight.

Backup back Daniel Dufrene has carried the ball just four times the past two weeks after dealing with an ankle injury.

“Rashard is doing well,” Zook said. “His body is holding up well. He’s excited and hasn’t shown any signs of wearing down but I think we’ll get Daniel in there more as we get going with this thing. He’s a hundred percent now. You’ll see him as needed.”

The fall of Troy

Zook said freshman running back Troy Pollard will have surgery to repair a torn ACL suffered in the Indiana game. Zook said doctors want the swelling to completely subside and flexibility to return prior to operating.

“They have found they come back a lot faster when that’s the case,” Zook said.

The 5-foot-8 back from Jacksonville, Fla., played in three games this season and carried the ball 23 times for 148 yards.