What a difference a year makes for Illini, Wolverines

There was no special celebration, and Jon Asamoah can barely even remember Oct. 4, 2008.

That day, on which the Illini beat the Michigan Wolverines, 45-20, in Ann Arbor, Mich., must feel eons ago for the Illini.

“I just remember, I was just happy we got a win. In my head, it wasn’t even that big of a win, it was just another win. I couldn’t even tell you who we played the week after that,” Asamoah said.

“It felt like another game. We went in there, we expected to win and we won and we moved on to the next week.”

The Illini, in fact, played Minnesota at home the next week and lost 27-20.

That Homecoming loss probably was just as surprising to Illinois as the Michigan win was mundane. But it began a string of 11 losses in 14 games that follows the Illini today.

Michigan, on the other hand, has seen its program go in the opposite direction of Illinois’ in the past year. During a disappointing 3-9 season in 2008 under new head coach Rich Rodriguez, the Wolverines’ program seemed to be at its ultimate low point.

But the Wolverines are 5-3 this season, only one win away from bowl eligibility.

The Illini were in a similar position just two years ago. After a loss to Michigan dropped them to 5-3, they rode their young quarterback, Juice Willliams, and a potent rushing attack to a 4-0 finish to the Big Ten season and a Rose Bowl appearance.

After three Big Ten losses, Michigan probably won’t be so lucky as to land a spot in a BCS bowl game. But the Wolverines do have an exciting young quarterback, Tate Forcier, and the leading running game in the Big Ten, at 219 yards per game.

Illinois center Eric Block remembers full well what it was like to be a part of a young, up-and-coming team like the 2009 Wolverines.

“Just stay focused,” he said when asked what advice he would give a team like Michigan.

“I think last year, after the Rose Bowl, everybody talked about us kind of losing focus, thinking we had arrived, maybe not working as hard or whatever. But you need to remember how you got there, and keep that same kind of attitude.

“That’s why there’s a lot of one-hit wonders in college football, and there’s only a few teams who stay up there for a long time,” he added. “They stay focused and don’t forget how they got there.”

Williams will get a reminder of how he came so close to reaching the mountaintop when he sees those maize and blue uniforms at Memorial Stadium this week. Last season at Michigan, Williams threw for 310 yards and ran for 121 more, scoring four touchdowns.

The game seemed like a continuation of the Illini’s previous success rather than an end of a short-lived era. After trailing 14-3, the Illini scored 27 straight points cruised to the 45-20 victory.

Williams’ 431 total yards of offense, 110 more yards than he’s had any game this season, set a Michigan Stadium record.

“It’s always fun to watch,” Williams said.

“It’s something that a lot of people can’t really say they’ve done, set a stadium record. I was actually watching clips of that (Monday), just as a motivational thing, trying to get us prepared, let us know that we can go out there and do the same thing. Go out there and play hard and execute.”

But things, of course, took a turn for the worse for Williams and the Illini, who find themselves at the bottom of the Big Ten in 2009, still winless in conference play.

Williams keeps iterating that this slump has been a nightmare where “he can’t wake up.” In that analogy, Williams may have fallen asleep after last year’s win at Michigan.

“It’s tough waking up in the morning and it’s actually a reality,” Williams said.

“But somehow, some way I think we can get it turned around the last half of the season.”

Williams hopes Saturday will bring a wake-up call to end his bad dream. If the Illini can secure a win, then they still have a shot at bowl eligibility, though it’s hanging by a thread.

But Block isn’t even thinking about that in his final season. After all, he’s been on a team that has fallen into the trap of looking too far ahead.

“Everybody’s focused on this game,” he said. “I think maybe last year that was one of the problems. We were kind of like, ‘Oh, we only need one more win and we’re bowl eligible.’ We started thinking about being bowl eligible instead of worrying about this game right here.”

“I think everybody’s pretty focused and just worried about this week. We can’t get to bowl eligible if we don’t win this game.”

And after winning became so natural early in his career, Asamoah knows a win Saturday is one he’d probably remember a year from now.

“It would probably take a lot of stress out of my life, I’m just totally frustrated,” the offensive guard said.

“That’s all I want right now. I want a win.”