Illinois makes leap from conference bottom to giant killer

The guys who build those mammoth casinos out in the Nevada desert have a certain image.

Designer suits, silk shirts and the elusive knowledge of an alluring-but-all-too-accurate betting line that will entice others to willingly part with millions.

Illinois coach Ron Zook sees something else.

At least he sees something else this week upon learning his Illini are 2½-point favorites Saturday against visiting Wisconsin.

To Zook, the brilliance that's raised a gambling mecca atop sand and tumbleweeds is as transparent as freshly-scrubbed window pane.

"That favorite stuff," Zook sniffed. "That's got to be a Wisconsin guy trying to get them upset. I don't know how you can have a team [favored] that's been 2-10 the last two years playing the No. 5 team in the nation."

Forget the 4-1 start overall, which is as many wins as Illinois managed his first two seasons.

Forget the 2-0 start in Big Ten play, which is double the Illini's conference win total in 2005 and 2006 combined.

And forget the 27-20 upset last week of No. 21 Penn State, which ended Illinois' 17-game losing streak against ranked opponents.

The truest measure of the Illini's rebirth is that those whose wealth depends on never being wrong about these things favor the target of FireRonZook.com over a team ranked fifth in the country and boasting the nation's longest winning streak.

All this leaves the over-caffeinated Zook so conflicted he might need therapy.

In the midst of stifling the slightest hint of satisfaction, he can't help acknowledging the unmistakable advancement of his program in just over two years.

"I don't want to say we've turned it around," Zook said. "We haven't turned it around. But we've made some progress."

Just how much became evident Saturday after a third interception sealed Illinois' first win over a ranked opponent at home since 1991.

While his players exulted, Zook scanned a sold-out Memorial Stadium that just two years ago had 16,000 empty seats when Penn State came to town and applied a 63-10 beating.

Senior linebacker J Leman was a sophomore then, playing for a head coach who didn't recruit him, but in whom he believed amid a tomb-like locker room afterward.

"Coach Zook told us that day, 'This is as low as we've ever been,' Leman recalled. "He said, 'From now on, we can do nothing but go up.' It's so true, because since that day, we've come a long, long way."

The journey can gain momentum Saturday against Wisconsin, a rugged outfit that trailed Illinois 24-10 at the half in Madison last season before scoring 20 unanswered in the second half.

That loss came amid seven straight defeats on the heels of what seemed a corner-turning, 23-20 comeback victory at Michigan State.

Turns out, Illinois wasn't ready to handle prosperity, and so it suffered more, winding up 2-10 overall and 1-7 in the league after going 2-9 and 0-8 in Zook's first season of 2005.

Back then, FireRonZook.com was still doing a brisk business, still getting laughs at Zook's expense from University of Florida fans who never warmed to the man tapped to succeed Steve Spurrier.

Zook smiles now at the mention of the Web site, which went public before he coached his first game. But he turns serious when asked if his Internet tormentors, or any of the rocky times in Gainesville, Fla. made him wonder whether his coaching talents were limited to being a great assistant.

"Never," he said. "Did I evaluate? Absolutely. Did I question myself at what I was doing? Absolutely. But never did I doubt."

That faith was rooted in a work ethic that's long made Zook the caricature next to the term, "tireless recruiter."

After Ron Turner's firing at Illinois, Zook took over and tirelessly sold his plan not just to high school prospects, but to the holdovers he inherited.

"He won us over with his vision and his energy," said Leman, a minister's son who plays with a passion that's made him the Big Ten's leading tackler both last year and this year. "He gave us a choice: Either hop on or hop off, and everyone hopped on. That's why this team is a hybrid. We have a mix of feisty old veterans and great young talent. We've been able to mesh that together."

Zook has indeed turned Illinois into a recruiting factor in areas where it previously struggled.

He lured cornerback Vontae Davis from Washington D.C. and quarterback Juice Williams from Chicago last season and wide receiver Arrelious (Rejus) Benn from D.C. and defensive end Martez Wilson from Chicago this year.

Everybody who's anybody wanted all four, but Zook sold them on building something special at Illinois on a foundation already laid by Leman and guys like junior tailback Rashard Mendenhall.

Mendenhall had only two 100-yard rushing performances his first two seasons and was known as a fumbler, so no one knew whether Illinois could match its success on the ground in 2006 when it led the league in rushing.

Through five games, Mendenhall ranks third in the league in rushing at 122.4 yards per-game, and with eight rushing touchdowns he trails only Wisconsin's P.J. Hill, with nine.

Illinois, once again, owns the league's best rushing offense.

Leman is the corresponding rock on defense, making a highlight-reel strip of a touchdown pass from Penn State's right end on Saturday, and then intercepting on the next play to turn back a go-ahead scoring threat.

Benn showed why Notre Dame worked itself into a snit over losing him to Illinois, returning a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown and steamrolling through most of the Penn State secondary with a 29-yard touchdown catch and run.

Zook has told anyone who will listen that Benn will be better than any of the Florida wide receivers who riddled Ohio State in the BCS National Championship game in January.

After Saturday, there are no leftover skeptics who'd quarrel with that opinion.

"You need athletes to win, and guys like Juice, Rejus and Vontae give us that," Leman said. "They sure are fun to watch. They add a little flair that was needed to get us over the hump.''

More hurdles remain after Wisconsin, but a win this week would give Illinois back-to-back victories over ranked opponents on consecutive weeks for the first time in school history.

Another win beyond that would clinch a bowl bid, the Illini's first since winning the Big Ten championship in 2001.

"There's still a lot of rough water out there," Zook said. "We better keep those hatches battened up. We still have a long way to go."

But not as far as they've already gone.

Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for more than two decades and now is host of a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.