How big was Illinois’ win over No. 22 Arizona State on Saturday night? Let’s try to find ways to measure it.
THE AD MEASURING STICK
After the Illini’s season-opening win over Arkansas State, new athletic director Mike Thomas and seventh-year head coach Ron Zook celebrated by sharing a warm handshake.
After Saturday night’s 17-14 win before 50,669 fans, Thomas and Zook enjoyed a warm hug and Thomas followed up with an enthusiastic pat on Zook’s rump. Then offensive coordinator Paul Petrino stopped hugging his children long enough to embrace Thomas as well.
THE PLAYER MEASURING STICK
After Illinois’ first two wins this year, the players trotted into the locker room to celebrate among themselves. After Saturday night’s win, the players raced into the north end-zone stands to hang with the students while the band played, if I’m not mistaken, “Illinois Loyalty.” Some former players stood in the end zone and videotaped the scene with their smartphones.
THE COACH/BOOSTER MEASURING STICK
After Illinois’ first two wins this year, Ron Zook didn’t receive enthusiastic applause from the family members and eager boosters seated in the interview room. But after Saturday night’s win? You would’ve thought Zook beat Florida.
So, yeah, the program’s first win over a Top 25 team since the Nov. 10, 2007, shocker at top-rated Ohio State certainly resonated with the Illini and their faithful.
It’s the first 3-0 start since 2001. It’s a good win over a good team. And in a Big Ten season where nobody except Wisconsin appears to be special, it’s a great year to enjoy a feel-good win in September.
Zook, perhaps buoyed by the post-game applause, was plenty fired up in the locker room and the media room. The Illini already are halfway to bowl eligibility without leaving Champaign-Urbana, but he and some of the players are thinking big.
Here’s what Zook said he told the players: “This is a great win for us. This is a great win for this season. Act like…we’re going to get a bunch more of these, so it ain’t the end of the season. It’s not the Big Ten championship. It’s just one we’re going to build on.”
“We’re not shooting for the Texas Bowl,” said junior defensive end Michael Buchanan, who posted 1.5 of Illinois’ 6 sacks. “We’re shooting for a big bowl.”
One potential problem? Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase took more than his share of hits Saturday night. He led the Illini in rushing (18 carries for 67 yards) and completed 11 of 15 passes for 135 yards, the game-winning TD and his second interception in the last 10 games.
Zook said Scheelhaase hurt his throwing shoulder and counted it as a reason why Scheelhaase had less zip on his passes than normal --- including on his second-quarter INT when he threw deep into double coverage. But Scheelhaase said he didn’t get dinged until the fourth quarter.
The Illini sent in freshman Reilly O’Toole to start what became the game-winning drive. O’Toole threw into double coverage on his lone snap, but Arizona State picked up a pass-interference call (the Sun Devils finished with 8 penalties for 91 yards compared to Illinois’ 5 for 33).
Scheelhaase returned on the next play and promptly ran a quarterback draw, which Zook made sure to mention in the postgame. Scheelhaase didn’t throw the rest of the game, though he ran it two other times.
Because the Illini spent so much time after the game discussing how the 38-14 Texas Bowl win over Baylor influenced their work ethic in the offseason, it seems instructive to hear whether Scheelhaase ranks Saturday’s win compared to the Texas Bowl whupping.
“Just because it’s a new season, I think it is pretty satisfying,” Scheelhaase said. “Just because you don’t know what this win is going to do for you in the long run. To start off 3-0, we feel like we’ve started off pretty solid. It feels pretty darn good.”
Next up? Western Michigan comes to town for Game 4 of the season-opening five-game homestand.
Apparently Zook mentioned to the players in the locker room how Western Michigan topped the Illini in late 2008 in Detroit…because more than one player (including one who wasn’t here in 2008) suggested payback is necessary.