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Thursday, September 15, 2011
Illini can change perception with big win

By Adam Rittenberg

Here's a buy-or-sell proposition for you.

Team X won its bowl game convincingly in December, capping a season that surprised many so-called experts. Team X boasts an exciting young dual-threat quarterback who has complemented his athleticism with better passing. Team X typically ranks among the nation's top-20 teams in rushing, returns a veteran line and a nice backfield mix. Despite losing three defenders to the NFL draft, Team X has several seasoned defensive backs and linebackers. Team X has won its first two games by a combined score of 89-18. Team X plays eight home games, including each of the first five and six of the first seven.

So, are you buying or selling?

Oh, you want to know the team's name? The head coach's name, too?

OK, understood. Let me know if you change your mind.

This is the perception the Illinois Fighting Illini and their coach Ron Zook are up against as they try to regain a place on the national college football radar. For every reason to buy into Illinois, there are other reasons to stay away from the Orange and Blue.

A.J. Jenkins
A.J. Jenkins knows Saturday night's game gives Illinois the chance to show the country what kind of team it is.
Illinois has been the ultimate tease in the Big Ten, twice reaching BCS bowls in the past decade, only to backslide. Zook has teased us with talent, bringing elite recruits to Champaign but not getting consistent results (30-45 in six-plus seasons).

While Illinois has the look of a team to watch in the Big Ten, there's a hesitancy from the outside to buy in, and players know it.

Check out receiver A.J. Jenkins' response to a seemingly neutral question: How big of an opportunity is Saturday night's game with No. 22 Arizona State?

"It's a really big opportunity for us," Jenkins said. "Both undefeated teams, playing a night game in prime time. It's going to be a good thing because we'll finally have the respect we deserve.

"We believe we can be a ranked, Top-25 team. This is the time for us to show the world that doesn't believe, that we're capable."

The Arizona State game comes at a perfect time for Illinois.

The Sun Devils come in ranked in both major polls (No. 22 AP; No. 18 coaches). They put themselves on the national radar with a dramatic overtime victory last Friday against Missouri. They boast one of the nation's most recognizable defenders in linebacker Vontaze Burfict and one of the nation's most recognizable quarterbacks in the 6-foot-8 Brock Osweiler.

Arizona State will be the main attraction nationally Saturday night, but if Illinois wins, attention will come its way. Maybe even respect.

"Our guys understand if we're going to be involved in the Big Ten [race], have something to do with that, this is a game where we're going to have to show up and play the way we're capable of playing," Zook said. "I don't think there's any question these guys are fired up about it."

The game pits an explosive Illinois offense against an Arizona State defense that ranked 16th nationally against the run in 2010. Illinois set a team scoring record last fall (423 points) and leads the Big Ten in scoring, total yards and rushing yards through the first two weeks.

Sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is off to a quick start, but Burfict, whose reputation for administering ferocious hits and drawing personal fouls is well known, will be gunning for No. 2.

"The emotional part is the thing that really stands out with Vontaze," Zook said. "He's going to make sure you know he's around."

Osweiler also is tough to miss, and not just because of his unusual size. The junior was brilliant against Missouri, completing 24 of 32 passes for 353 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.

Illinois needs its veteran linebackers and defensive backs like Ian Thomas, Trulon Henry, Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne to step up.

"You can't get in his line of sight," Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said of Osweiler. "They run the big split stuff where they get him throwing lanes. He's a big ol' quarterback and he's not unathletic. We're just going to do the best we can.

"This will be a fantastic challenge for us."

Illinois hasn't beaten a ranked opponent since stunning then-No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus in 2007. The victory spurred the Illini to the Rose Bowl.

Although beating Arizona State wouldn't make the same impact, it could springboard the Illini to bigger things when Big Ten play begins.

"For people who don't believe we can beat teams that are ranked, it's time to come out and see what we can do," Jenkins said. "This game might spark our season.

"I wouldn't say it's a must-win, but if we want the respect that we deserve, this is a win we need."