- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois coach Ron Zook has often talked about how his program experienced too much success too soon.
After winning just eight games between 2003-06, Illinois fast-tracked to the Rose Bowl in Zook's third season, finding itself as a surprise participant on college football's grandest stage. Rather than take a step, Illinois skipped about 40.
The Illini tumbled that day against USC and entered a two-year free fall.
No one would describe the 2010 Texas Bowl -- now called the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas -- as an iconic college football setting. It takes place in an NFL venue -- Houston's Reliant Stadium -- and was revived only in 2006.
But for Illinois, the Texas Bowl represented a step, a building block for what players and coaches hopes were bigger things ahead. It didn't hurt that the Illini crushed Baylor 38-14.
"A lot of guys hadn't been to a bowl game," sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown said. "It was kind of good to taste success, but it made us more hungry."
The hunger carried Illinois through the offseason, and the team has been able to retain something it lost following the 2002 Sugar Bowl and the 2008 Rose Bowl.
Illinois announced itself as a team to watch Saturday night against No. 22 Arizona State, rallying behind a ferocious defense for a 17-14 win. The Illini are 3-0 for the first time since 2001 -- the last year they won a Big Ten championship -- and recorded their first win against a ranked opponent since stunning No. 1 Ohio State in 2007.
For their efforts, the Illini, projected by many to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten, likely will earn a spot in the new polls released Sunday.
"We're taking some steps," Zook said. "We're continuing to get where we're supposed to get. ... It makes everybody understand that, 'Hey, maybe Illinois is a bit better than what people think.'"
Illinois and Arizona State both finished the 2010 regular season with identical 6-6 records. While the Illini went bowling, Arizona State stayed home because two of its victories came against FCS opponents.
Still, the Sun Devils entered this season as a team to watch, a belief strengthened by their overtime win last week against Missouri. Arizona State didn't have the letdown coach Dennis Erickson feared, but the Sun Devils couldn't overcome the mistakes (eight penalties, three turnovers) that have plagued them far too often.
Given another chance to turn the corner, Arizona State lost its footing.
"This is gut-wrenching, to be honest with you," receiver Gerell Robinson said. "Everyone is sitting in disbelief that it happened the way it did."
It happened because Illinois' defense executed an innovative, pressuring, "crazy" game plan devised by coordinator Vic Koenning. Illinois mixed up fronts, blitzed often and repeatedly made plays in Arizona State's offensive backfield.
The Illini racked up six sacks, 12 tackles for loss and four quarterback pressures. Two of their three takeaways came as a direct result of pressure on Sun Devils quarterback Brock Osweiler, who entered the game ranked 10th nationally in passer rating and 11th in total offense.
"We sat up here Sunday night, put the game plan together, kind of looked at each other and said, 'This is crazy,'" Koenning said. "But it all worked."
Brown had a breakout performance with 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception. Defensive ends Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan combined for 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
"They brought a lot of pressure tonight," Osweiler said. "Shoot, it seemed like almost every snap."
What was pegged as an offensive shootout turned into a defensive tussle, and for much of the game, neither team seemed willing to take control. The teams combined for five turnovers in the first three quarters but converted none for points.
Illinois finally ended the trend when, trailing 14-10 in the fourth quarter, Mercilus sacked Osweiler, forcing a fumble. An Illini offense that hadn't recorded a first down in the second half then marched to the end zone in only four plays.
"You've got to capitalize," Zook said. "You've got to make something happen when you get the ball back."
Arizona State couldn't do so nearly enough. The Devils had eight possessions end in Illinois territory, but only two culminated in points.
"Very disappointing," Erickson said. "It's two steps forward and one step back."
Who knows how a bowl appearance in the winter would have impacted Arizona State for the 2010 season. But there's little doubt about the positive effect it had on the Illini.
"It changed the culture," Buchanan said. "It changed how guys think about playing on the big stage. ... We got a taste of being on top."
Illinois sits atop the Big Ten as one of just four remaining undefeated teams. The league looks extremely vulnerable, and Illinois has three of the next four games at home with the only road trip to Indiana.
Leaders division foes Wisconsin and Ohio State both must visit Memorial Stadium later this fall.
"We're not shooting for the Texas Bowl," Buchanan said. "We're shooting for a big bowl."