Illini become bowl eligible with 6th win

?Illini head coach Ron Zook left the field at Indiana’s Memorial Stadium on Saturday with six fingers raised in the air.

?After Illinois extended its unbeaten record to 6-0, defeating the Hoosiers 41-20 in its first road test of the season, Zook was exuberant on his way back to the locker room. For the first time since 1991-92, Illinois has earned bowl eligibility in back-to-back seasons.  

?“It feels great, I’ve never been bowl eligible this early, ever,” senior linebacker Ian Thomas said. “I never thought I would be.”

?When the team returned to the locker room, Zook congratulated his team on becoming bowl eligible but refocused his team’s mindset on next week’s game against Ohio State.

?“We talked a little bit about it in the locker room after the game. We can’t get complacent now,” Big Ten sack leader Whitney Mercilus said. “It’s just going to get tougher each week. Everyone is going to try and pull an upset on us because they want the win against us, pushing them further into a better bowl game. But right now we got O-State next week, and we just have to concentrate on them.”

?Without the comforts of home for the first time this season, Illinois got off to a sluggish start against Indiana. On the first play of the game, Indiana kick returner Shane Wynn returned Derek Dimke’s opening kickoff 99 yards.

?“No. 1 was the kickoff – line drive,” Zook said. “You can’t kick like that. We’ll get that fixed, and we had a couple guys who didn’t get where they had to get.”

?Following the score, Illinois went three and out and fumbled on its next two possessions, allowing Indiana to get off to an early 10-0 lead. Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said the team didn’t flinch at the early deficit.

On 3rd and 11 with 5:55 left in the first quarter, Illinois’ offense showed signs of life, once again in the hands of A.J. Jenkins. Scheelhaase saw Jenkins running wide open and connected with the senior wide receiver for a 77-yard touchdown pass. After catching 12 passes for 268 yards last week against Northwestern, Jenkins finished Saturday’s game with 182 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

? “Obviously, sometimes you’re not going to have everything go your way,” Scheelhaase said. “When you’re able to get big plays, and Coach (Paul) Petrino calls them ‘chunk plays,’ it really helps your offense out a lot.”

?On Indiana’s next possession, Mercilus hit Indiana quarterback Dusty Kiel, forcing a fumble that senior cornerback Tavon Wilson ran 66-yards into the end zone. Zook called the play “the igniter” that woke the Illini.

?“Whitney Mercilus had a great get off and forced a fumble, and I just picked it up and scored,” Wilson said. “It was a great play by him and there was nobody there, so I just picked it up and scored. I’m thankful that he did get it out.”

?Indiana opened the second quarter with a field goal but would not score again until the game was out of reach with six minutes left.

Illinois took control in the second quarter with a 3-yard touchdown pass from Scheelhaase to tight end Jon Davis. It was the first touchdown of Davis’s career, giving the Illini a 20-13 lead.

The Illini ran for 308 yards, with senior Troy Pollard leading all rushers with 92 yards. Last week, Jason Ford ran for nine yards on seven carries. On Saturday, he rushed for 55 yards and scored Illinois’ final touchdown.

Scheelhaase added 88 yards and a touchdown on the ground in addition to his 219 yards and three touchdowns through the air. The sophomore quarterback said his goal when he first looked at the schedule before the season was to be 6-0 heading into Ohio State.

While Scheelhaase said he’s enjoying the moment, he had a two-word answer for how he avoids overconfidence – Coach Petrino.

“I was asked a couple times how I would compare this team to the ’07 team,” Zook said. “If there is one comparison, it’s that the guys are letting the coaches coach them.”