Illini eye second consecutive trip to bowl

CHICAGO -- Illinois senior wide receiver A.J. Jenkins has no doubt this season's Illini team will become the first in nearly 20 years to reach consecutive bowl games.

"We're going to a bowl game this year," Jenkins said during the Big Ten media days on Friday. "There's no questions. That's what we're going to do. That's nothing to worry about."

Illinois has experienced success since it last went to consecutive bowl games in 1991 and 1992. The Illini reached bowl games in 1994 (Liberty Bowl), 1999 (Micronpc.com Bowl), 2002 (Sugar Bowl), 2008 (Rose Bowl) and 2010 (Texas Bowl). The problem has been sustaining that success.

Illinois coach Ron Zook, who is entering his seventh season, thought the Illini's Rose Bowl trip in 2008 did as much damage to his team as it did good.

"Probably one of the things in my tenure when I look back at my tenure, I think going to the Rose Bowl probably was something that thwarted our progress," Zook said. "As much as you try to tell everybody, 'We're not there yet.' I think they were hearing, but they weren't listening.

"When we went to the Rose Bowl, there was nobody on that team who had been to a bowl game. That's the grand daddy of them all. All of a sudden, everybody thought we were there, maybe the coaches did, as well. There's not a big difference between playing up here and down there."

It's a lesson Zook has learned from and tried to stress upon his current players after they defeated Baylor in the Texas Bowl last season.

"From day one when we got back from the bowl game, [we've been saying,] 'We're not there yet,'" Zook said. "We have a long way to go, and we're going to continue to go forward. We're not going to rest on our laurels."

Illinois senior cornerback Tavon Wilson said he feels a responsibility to make sure the program stayed afloat this time around.

"I feel more of a pressure on me because I've been around here, and I won't let the program go back to what it was," Wilson said. "I helped build this program up to winning a bowl game. I've been through a 3-9 season before. Some of these people on our team haven't been through those tough times two years in a row, going 5-7, going 3-9, missing a bowl game."