Shots of Champaign

By Adam Caparell - October 02, 2007

Quick question. Who is the top rushing team in the Big Ten? If you answered either Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State or Ohio State then you'd be wrong - by a wide margin.

The answer, of course, is Ron Zook led Illinois who happen to be averaging 255 yards per game, a clip that's leading the conference by 46 yards. And because of it, the Illinis are off to their best start in a long time.

Behind junior running back Rashard Mendenhall, who is 11th in the country in rushing with 612 yards rushing and 8 TDs, Illinois is 4-1 and 2-0 in conference play for the first time since 1991 after scoring one of its biggest wins in recent memory last weekend over then No. 21 Penn State.

Mendenhall once again led the team in rushing as the Illini ran for 216 yards Saturday against what formerly had been one of the more vaunted run defenses in the country.

There's been an emphasis on the run by Illinois this season and that's clearly by design for Zook, now in his third season at Illinois. With a junior in Mendenhall and a mobile quarterback like Juice Williams who, although he is maturing behind center, still isn't the most trustworthy passer, Zook has some athletes to work with in the backfield and an offensive line that has shown drastic improvement early this season compared to last.

And then there is Arrelious Benn, the highly touted freshman, who Zook has handed the ball off to on a number of reverses and other running plays at least three times a game in order to utilize the wide out's blazing speed.

"We feel like this for us, with where we are right now, is the best way for us to run the football and we've been fortunate enough to gain a few yards," Zook said.

The emergence of Mendenhall as one of the three leading rushers in the Big Ten can't be overstated enough. The 5-foot-11, 224 pounder has finally emerged out of his shell and will shatter last season's personal best of 640 yards.

"He's given us leadership and we always felt, the three years we've been here, that he as a lot of talent, God-given ability," Zook said. "He just didn't come forward, so this year we pushed him into the role and he's accepted it and done a great job for us."

Now Illinois, on the verge of the breaking through into the AP rankings, hosts No. 5 Wisconsin Saturday in Champaign and a Badger team that's been underwhelming defensively to say the least. Wisconsin has allowed teams like UNLV and The Citadel to hang around far too long for comfort and gave up 241 yards to Michigan State in a narrow three point victory in Madison last weekend.

But Zook expects the Wisconsin defense we all thought we'd see - the one that finished fifth in total defense last season - to show up Saturday

"They play against the run all the time," Zook said. "You know they're going to be tough. I'm sure they're going to make sure they're going to stop the run as well."

And not to add any pressure or anything to the upstart Illini, but Vegas actually has Illinois penciled in as the early favorite.

"I think thats ludicrious," Zook said. "That's probably somebody from Wisconsin trying to get them upset or fired up because I don't think there's any way possible that a team like us could be favored over a team like Wisconsin."

For what it's worth, the Illini are a 2.5 point favorite.

Posted by Adam Caparell at 01:58 PM on October 02, 2007

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