CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Illinois is two games into a three-game stretch that back in August looked a lot more likely to break their season than make it.
But the Illini (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) have a blowout road win over Penn State and a moral victory in a close loss to now-No. 1 Ohio State.
Next up is No. 13 Michigan State (6-0, 2-0).
Illinois head coach Ron Zook is trying to keep his players focused more on themselves than their opponent.
“We haven’t accomplished anything yet,” Zook said Tuesday. “It’s very important that you know your opponent, but we have to take care of us.
“They’re playing for an awful lot,” he added, talking about the undefeated Spartans. “This’ll be a big time ball game.”
Before the season started, most observers would have given the rebuilding Illini credit if they’d come through the nasty three-game run with a trio of tight losses.
But a 24-13 defeat two weeks ago against Ohio State – a game the Illini led early – gave the team a degree of confidence that seemed to carry over at Penn State. Illinois upset the Nittany Lions 33-13 for its first win in Happy Valley.
The Illini battered Penn State with 282 rushing yards, 119 of them by junior tailback Mikel Leshoure. It was his fourth 100-yard game of the season.
Zook gave credit to the offensive line, but also to offensive line coach Joe Gilbert and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. Planning, he said, will be key to running on a Michigan State defense that’s giving up 111 yards a game.
The Spartans held Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson to a relatively modest 86 rushing yards in their 34-17 win last Saturday.
After Michigan State, the Illini’s schedule looks considerably easier – home games with Indiana and Purdue before heading to Michigan and hosting Minnesota.
Indiana and Purdue are both 3-2, but aside from Purdue’s win over Northwestern neither has beaten a well-regarded team.
While Illinois dominated Penn State, the Illini struggled on special teams. Return man Jack Ramsey fumbled three times, with two of them leading to Nittany Lions field goals.
Zook wouldn’t say who will handle return duties at Michigan State, but wouldn’t rule out Ramsey, who had not struggled before last week.
“I wish I had the answer,” Zook said. “He’s got to fight through it.”
By David Mercer, Associated Press Writer
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