Illini struggle, find way to remain unbeaten

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Illinois coach Ron Zook entered his locker room Saturday following the Illini’s 23-20 win over Western Michigan and was surprised at what he found.

The room was quiet.

Zook didn’t expect his players to be celebrating like they did the previous week after beating previously-ranked Arizona State, but he certainly didn’t think the Illini would be treating their narrow win as a failure.

As Zook explained to them, a win is a win.

“When things are all said and done, people aren’t going to remember how we played,” Zook said. “They’ll remember we’re 4-0.”

It’s true. Back in 2007, Illinois had a similarly difficult game against another MAC foe. The Illini only led Ball State by four points entering the fourth quarter before pulling out a 28-17 victory.

If Illinois had lost that game, everyone would easily recall it. Today, it’s nothing more than another win that led to a Rose Bowl berth.

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase hopes those parallels continue.

“We had to scrap out the win,” said Scheelhaase, who threw for 133 yards and a touchdown. “They say you need that. Every team who has a great season, at the end, you look back and they have one of those games and found a way to win. It’s good to do that.”

Not everything was good Saturday. Illinois’ offense, especially its run game, struggled in the first half, and Western Michigan was able to pick apart the Illini’s secondary at times. Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder accumulated 306 yards passing, and the game could have gone the other way if the Broncos hadn’t missed two field goals.

But one positive Illinois will take from the game was despite trailing 13-10 at halftime, the Illini persevered and didn’t repeat history. In 2008, Western Michigan led at halftime, and Illinois never recovered.

“I want to tell you something, and I know a lot of people may not agree with this, obviously you guys know more than me, but sometimes you got to go through games like that,” Zook said. “There’s a lot of teams in the country who would have folded. They had the momentum. We were down by three.”

Even a year ago, Illinois likely would have lost Saturday. It went 0-3 in games decide by four points or less in 2010. It’s already 2-0 in that same category this season.

Scheelhasse believes there’s a reason for that difference.

“It’s just a different vibe,” Scheelhaase said. “You could feel it through Rantoul. You could feel it as we got up to the season. It’s a different mentality. It’s exciting. Instead of people getting down on each other, people getting down when things aren’t going well, it’s almost as if we like when the pressure is on.

“We like being challenged, and we believe in ourselves. That’s the thing about it. We have a strong belief in the 100 guys or so in the locker room and the coaches that are coaching us. When we have that strong belief, the sky is the limit.”