CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois earned the right to celebrate for one night after beating its first ranked opponent in 10 tries with Saturday’s win over Arizona State.
Illinois senior Jack Cornell just wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to be a week-long party. Shortly after returning to the locker room following Saturday’s victory, Cornell got up in his front of his teammates and reminded them their next opponent, Western Michigan, isn’t one to overlook. It was the same program which upset the Illini when Cornell was a freshman in 2008.
“A lot of the guys in our locker room weren’t here a couple years ago,” Cornell said on Tuesday. “I just tried to take it upon myself to step up and remind them that this team can beat us, and we need to come out here every day and work hard and not take this team lightly.”
Illinois faced Western Michigan at Ford Field in Detroit for its 10th game of the 2008 season. The Illini allowed the Broncos 17 points in the second quarter and never found a way back into the game. Illinois converted 1-of-13 third downs and ended up losing 23-17.
“Trust me when I say this, we all know what happened two years ago,” Illinois coach Ron Zook said. “Our football team knows what happened two years ago.”
The details of the loss escaped most of Illinois’ seniors three years later, but they recalled the general tone of the game.
“I just remember us not showing up to play,” Cornell said. “Really not having a lot of fire, and we kind of gave up.”
The defeat sent the Illini into a downward spiral. Leading up to the game, Illinois was in position to get back to a bowl game. With the loss to Western Michigan, the Illini fell to .500 and the dropped their next two games to Ohio State and Northwestern to finish 5-7 on the season.
“It kind of stopped us from going to a bowl game,” Illinois senior wide receiver A.J. Jenkins said.
Illinois won only three games the following season and had to wait until 2010 to finally return to a bowl game.
Now in 2011, Illinois’ senior class is at its height. The Illini’s win Saturday was their first over a ranked opponent since November of 2010, and they made an appearance Sunday in the AP rankings for the first time since September of 2008. And they’re 3-0, which hasn’t happened since 2001 and now have a shot at going 4-0 for the first time since the national championship season in 1951.
“My class, we went to one bowl game,” Jenkins said. “We’re not satisfied. Obviously, we have to keep doing what we’re doing. We’re in a good position right now to go 6, 7, 8-0 right now. But right now, we have to focus on this game coming up.”
Western Michigan is 2-1 and coming off a 44-14 win over its rival Central Michigan. Western Michigan is led by quarterback Alex Carder and wide receiver Jordan White, who has 29 receptions and 363 yards on the season.
"Our kids are going to have to really rise to the challenge,” Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit said. “You’ve only got 12 opportunities to go play. We’ve always done this as a football team at Western and continue doing it. I think they’re challenges. We’ve got good players, too.
"I heard one reporter in the conference call mention the last loss was embarrassing to him. So, our kids will go down there and try to win the football game. There's no other way to do it.”