When reporters asked Michigan coach Lloyd Carr at Monday’s press conference what he thought about Illinois football’s recent resurgence, he deferred.
“You’ll have to ask (Illinois) coach (Ron) Zook that,” Carr said.
Carr’s response made sense.
Recently, Zook seems to have all the answers.
In 2005, he took over a program that hadn’t finished with a winning season since 2001. Illinois had struggled with recruiting under previous coach Ron Turner, who had led his team to 0-8 and 1-7 Big Ten records in 2003 and 2004, respectively.
After two rebuilding years under Zook, the turnaround has been remarkable. Zook has his team at 5-2, and the Illini were ranked 18th in the country before being upset (yes, upset) by Iowa last Saturday. Illinois barely dropped its season opener to now-No. 15 Missouri, 40-34, before ripping off five straight wins. The streak included a win over then-No. 21 Penn State – the Illini’s first win over a ranked team since 2001.
That victory marked Illinois’ (3-1 Big Ten, 5-2 overall) fourth win, the first time it had surpassed that measly benchmark since 2002.
Even more remarkably, the win was its first home one over a ranked Big Ten team since 1991. The Illini proved the win wasn’t a fluke the very next week when they beat then-No. 5 Wisconsin, 31-26, in Champaign.
Zook has managed to attract many big-name recruits to Illinois, a marked change from before he took over. In 2004, not a single five-star recruit and just one four-star recruit chose to play for the Illini. The next year wasn’t much better. Illinois failed to get a five-star recruit for the second straight year and just three four-star recruits made the commitment.
But Zook’s arrival brought about an immediate change. In his first year with the program, the Illini attracted six four-star recruits, including quarterback Isaiah “Juice” Williams, ranked as the No. 3 quarterback in the country by Rivals.com. Williams almost immediately assumed the starting role and is giving defenses headaches with his athleticism in his sophomore season.
“Even when you have people in position who are responsible to take the quarterback, that doesn’t mean that he’s going to be tackled,” Carr said. “He’s a great athlete, and he will make people miss.”
Michigan has traditionally struggled against mobile quarterbacks, and images of Texas’s Vince Young and Ohio State’s Troy Smith having career games against Wolverine defenses still haunt Michigan fans. Even more recently, Appalachian State’s Armanti Edwards and Oregon’s Dennis Dixon tore through the Wolverines.
But Michigan defenders say they’ve fixed the problem.
“We were hesitant to blow up-field because (they) could pull it down and run,” defensive tackle Terrance Taylor said. “But now, running quarterback or not, we’re going to come after you. If he makes some plays, he makes some plays. But in the end, if we make more plays than you, we’re going to win.”
Not so fast, cautions defensive coordinator Ron English. Against Purdue, which ran the spread offense but did not boast a mobile quarterback, English saw some problems.
On Purdue’s only offensive score in the first half, defensive end/linebacker Shawn Crable missed an assignment and allowed Painter to scramble into the end zone.
“(Crable) should have had the quarterback, and he didn’t take him,” English said. “Next week, we’ll see a bunch of that. Illinois will jump in and out of plays, and that’s where our discipline is going to have to show up.”
Williams isn’t the only threat Zook has brought to Illinois. He followed up a top-30 recruiting class in 2006 with an even better one in 2007 – a class that included receiver Arrelious Benn as one of two five-star recruits and an additional five four-star recruits, among others.
Benn has already made his presence felt. He’s started every game this season and broke out against the Nittany Lions, returning the first kick of his career for a 90-yard touchdown and adding six receptions for 84 yards and another touchdown.
“Benn is extremely impressive in terms of what he can do when he catches the ball,” Carr said. “He’s tough. For a true freshman, he has been extremely impressive. Then, you look at what he’s been able to do in the return game. (Stopping him) is a challenge.”
Traveling to Illinois usually isn’t much of a challenge for Michigan. The Wolverines haven’t lost to the Illini on the road since 1983. But this year, with a revamped and rejuvenated team awaiting them and a hostile Champaign environment waiting all Saturday for the game, things could be different.
Carr might have to come up with some answers.