If you paid any attention to Illinois’ 23-20 victory over Western Michigan on Saturday, then you heard that Ron Zook’s Illini are off to the school’s first 4-0 start since 1951.
When it's been such a long time, writers are contractually required to mention who was president...and who was No. 1 on the Billboard charts...and how many pennies it took to buy a gallon of gas. But I digress. There are relevant ways to put Illinois’ start into perspective, too.
--The Illini have swept their regular-season non-conference games just four times since Dick Butkus was graduated after the 1964 season: In 1999, 2000, 2001 and this year.
--Illinois’ fast start has a little bit to do with scheduling, of course. Prior to this season, the Illini opened with four home games just once in the past 68 seasons…and that was in 2004.
(By the way, I just noticed this nugget in Illinois’ media guide. The 1932 team kicked off its season with a doubleheader. The Illini bumped off Miami Ohio 20-7 before defeating Coe College 13-0. With a little Googling, I see Purdue opened the 1931 season with a doubleheader victory over Western Reserve and Coe. Must’ve been a Great Depression thing).
--But enough about Illinois’ 4-0 start. With Northwestern heading to Champaign next Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN2), Zook says the Illini are re-setting their record to 0-0. QB Nathan Scheelhaase just wants to get to Big Ten play.
“They’ve got a really good team over there,” Scheelhaase said. “We feel like we’ve got a solid team and we’re excited. I mean, this is what it’s all about.”
--Illinois’ tight ends caught 5 passes for 81 yards and 1 touchdown Saturday, which is big news because Illinois’ tight ends caught 2 passes for 13 yards in the first 3 games combined. While Scheelhaase said the focus on the tight ends wasn’t necessarily designed that way, he and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino were grateful it happened because it put those plays on tape for Northwestern’s benefit.
Petrino referred to it as having more bullets in the gun. Do the Illini, who scored just 40 points in the last two weeks combined, have enough bullets for the Big Ten?
“Yeah, we do,” Petrino said. “We’ve got to get better at them, though.”
Has he saved some bullets?
“We have, but we’ve got to make sure we’re more accurate and we hit our target. We’ve still got a lot of bullets and we’ve got to continue to improve. You know, last year we averaged more points in the Big Ten (35.8) than we did out of conference (27.4). That’s something because we kept practicing, kept working hard and kept improving.”
--Ron Zook said a couple of Illini players needed X-rays on their thumbs after the game, but didn’t offer any hints as to those players’ identities. Considering Scheelhaase took longer than normal to meet with the media, we wondered whether he might be one of the guys because he threw just one pass in the fourth quarter.
Scheelhaase copped only to a sore shoulder…and he didn’t wince during a handshake. Check that. He didn’t cop only to a sore shoulder. He hurt his neck when WMU defensive end Paul Hazel grabbed him by the helmet and yanked him straight back. The officials flagged him for a facemask, but it was offset by a holding call on redshirt freshman Michael Heitz.
“Yeah, a little whiplash,” Scheelhaase said. “I’ve never been in a car wreck, but I bet that’s what it felt like a little bit.”