Illini achieve bowl eligibility for first time since 2001-02



By Jason Grodsky

It’s been six years since Illinois last made a bowl game appearance. But with a 28-17 victory Saturday against Ball State, the Illini picked up the sixth win that makes them bowl eligible.

For the seniors on the team, it’s the first time they will possibly have an opportunity to keep playing in late December or early January.

“We knew coming into this year we had the potential and the talent to become bowl eligible, we just had to go out and win the games and take care of business,” senior defensive back Justin Harrison said. “We accomplished that goal, but now we need to go out and get more victories to get to the game we want to be in.”

The Big Ten has six bowl tie-ins with the Capital One Bowl, Outback Bowl, Alamo Bowl, Champs Sports Bowl, Insight Bowl and Motor City Bowl, plus an automatic spot in a BCS game for the conference champion.


photo DI multimedia



Illini become bowl eligible

Click to view an audio slideshow about the game.

However, with Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin and Purdue already bowl eligible and Northwestern, Indiana and Michigan State just one victory away from becoming bowl eligible, the Big Ten may not have enough bowl tie-ins to accommodate every team, meaning the Illini would still need to win again.

“I’m happy that we’re eligible but not with just six wins,” senior defensive back Kevin Mitchell said. “We still have a lot of opportunities coming up with our last three games and we have a chance to improve our status.”

In their final three games the Illini are on the road for two – at Minnesota and No. 1-ranked Ohio State – before returning home for the season finale against Northwestern.

Illinois hasn’t beaten the Gophers on the road since 1994 and is winless against Ohio State since 2001.

“Our players have to understand there’s a lot of football to be played,” head coach Ron Zook said. “We’re back in the Big Ten now with three games left. We have the opportunity to really have a special year. We can’t stop here. We have the opportunity to win nine games.”

Mendenhall, Williams hit marks

With his two-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, junior running back and Doak Walker Award candidate Rashard Mendenhall surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the season.

Mendenhall’s 189 rushing yards moved him into eighth place on the Illinois single-season rushers list with 1,113 yards on the year, becoming the Illini’s first 1,000-yard single-season rusher since Antoineo Harris in 2002

“The line did a good job again for me and took care of me,” Mendenhall said. “They were opening holes all over the place for me to run through.”

Mendenhall’s 1,113 yards this season has also moved him into 13th place on the Illinois all-time rushing list with 1,971 career rushing yards. His two scores in the game give him 12 rushing touchdowns on the season, tying him for third on the school’s single-season rushing touchdown list.

The Skokie, Ill., native’s 189 yards and two touchdowns helped the Illini rush for more than 300 yards for the second time this season. Zook felt his running back could’ve had an even bigger day.

“I told him in the third quarter that he needed to take this team and put it on his back,” Zook said. “He had 189 yards on the day, but I still think he had the opportunity to get some more and get over 200 yards. We know he has that kind of ability and that’s why we continue to stand on him.”

While Mendenhall passed the 1,000-yard mark for a season, sophomore quarterback Juice Williams surpassed the career 1,000-yard rushing milestone with 99 yards rushing in the game.

Already the school’s all-time leading rusher at quarterback, Williams now has 1,014 career rushing yards.

Benn sets freshman record

Although the Illini have established themselves as a running team, freshman wide receiver Arrelious Benn has provided the team with a passing threat to complement its ground attack.

The Freshman of the Year candidate broke the freshman receiving yardage record at Illinois with 97 yards receiving on Saturday. His 556 receiving yards on the season broke former Illini Brandon Lloyd’s previous record of 511 yards set in 1999.

The Washington, D.C., native’s 56-yard catch in the fourth quarter set up the Illini’s final score of the game and gave him a career-high 97 yards receiving. “With football, anything I do everybody is watching,” Benn said.

“This is why I came here. I set goals for myself and that’s one goal. I’m going to pick another goal now.”