Consecutive victories over Top 25 teams has Illinois ranked for the first time in six years.
Now the 18th-ranked Illini (5-1, 3-0) look to solidify a spot in the poll and become bowl eligible Saturday when they face Big Ten rival Iowa, a team they have not beaten in seven years.
Illinois upset then-No. 5 Wisconsin 31-26 at home last Saturday, one week after earning a 27-20 home victory over then-No. 21 Penn State. It is the first time since 1959 that Illinois has beaten two straight ranked opponents.
There’s been dramatic improvement in coach Ron Zook’s third season for a school that had eight total wins and went 2-30 in the conference the previous four seasons.
“With a team like us,” said running back Rashard Mendenhall, who rushed for 160 yards on 19 carries and two touchdowns against Wisconsin, “We haven’t had too much success like this. … (Now) we know we can play with anybody.”
Illinois is ranked for the first time since finishing the 2001 season 12th, and looks to win its sixth straight contest and improve to 4-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1990.
A win Saturday would also make Illinois eligible for its first bowl game since losing 47-34 to LSU in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2002.
To do that, the Illini must snap a four-game losing streak to Iowa, dating to a 31-0 home victory over the Hawkeyes on Oct. 14, 2000. The Illini’s most recent victory at Iowa City was 40-24 on Nov. 6, 1999.
Iowa (2-4, 0-3), though, will be looking to avoid a fourth straight loss and ninth in a row in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes beat Purdue 47-17 on Oct. 7, 2006 for their most recent conference victory.
“It’s the middle of the season,” Illini cornerback Vontae Davis said. “We can’t fall now. We just have to keep pushing.”
Mendenhall has sparked an Illinois rushing attack that’s fifth in the nation at 261.2 yards per game. The junior is second in the conference with 128.7 yards a game on the ground.
Sophomore quarterback Juice Williams, who rushed for a season-high 92 yards on 14 carries last week, should play Saturday despite suffering a hyperextended knee against the Badgers. Backup quarterback Eddie McGee, who scored on a 5-yard run in the fourth quarter, could also see time.
“We take pride in our running,” Mendenhall said. “With our scheme and the playmakers we have out there, it’s hard for the defense to focus on just one person.”
Iowa could have the defense to stop an Illini team that averages 30.2 points a contest. The Hawkeyes are giving up just 16.6 points and 113.8 rushing yards per game.
Iowa, though, yielded 65 points in losses to Indiana and Penn State the last two weeks. The Hawkeyes were burned for a season-high 256 rushing yards in their 27-7 road defeat to the Nittany Lions on Saturday.
While Iowa’s defense will face a challenge, its offense must improve after gaining a season-low 194 yards against Penn State. The Hawkeyes had 48 rushing yards, the second time in three games they rushed for less than 60.
“We’re just going to have to keep working through things offensively,” said Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz, whose team averages a Big Ten-worst 17.3 points. “We have to find a way to muster more offense.”
Ferentz hopes for a big day from sophomore Jake Christensen, who was 16-for-29 for 146 yards and a touchdown last week. The suburban Chicago product has thrown five TDs in his last three games, but has also been sacked 18 times during that span.
Running back Albert Young had just 44 yards on 13 carries against Penn State, but has ran well against Illinois. He’s gained 159 yards on 27 carries in two games versus the Illini, and scored a touchdown in Iowa’s 24-7 victory over Illinois on Sept. 23, 2006.