Last weekend's upset of a Top 25 team wasn't enough to get Illinois ranked. Maybe this one will be.
Rashard Mendenhall and Juice Williams carried the surprising Illini to a 31-26 win over No. 5 Wisconsin on Saturday, ending the Badgers' 14-game winning streak.
A week ago, Illinois beat then No. 21 Penn State 27-20, the school's first win over a ranked opponent since 2001.
Mendenhall ran for 160 yards and two touchdowns, and Williams added another 92 yards rushing as Illinois improved to 5-1 overall. The Illini are off to a 3-0 start in the Big Ten for the first time since 1990, when they won a share of the conference title.
None of it is a surprise to Illinois coach Ron Zook, who challenged Mendenhall before the season to lead the potent offense.
"I said, 'Rashard, if you have the kind of year we think you're capable of having, and if you do the things the coaches are trying to get you to do, we have a chance to be pretty special,' " Zook said.
Zook's resurrection of Illinois has mirrored his own. He was run out of Florida after three winning seasons, only to surface in Champaign in 2005. After winning only four of his first 23 games, and just one in the conference, he has Illinois talking Big Ten title.
"With a team like us," Mendenhall said, "we haven't had too much success like this. ... [Now] we know we can play with anybody."
The Badgers (5-1, 2-1) hadn't lost since Sept. 16, 2006, at Michigan. It was also only the second loss in 19 games for coach Bret Bielema, who said the Illini played up to Wisconsin's ranking.
"I think it has to do with we're ranked No. 5 in the country and everybody wants to talk about why we shouldn't be," he said.
Whether that ranking was justified is another thing. The Badgers struggled to wins over UNLV, Iowa and Michigan State and were three-point underdogs against Illinois.
It looked like Illinois was the better team most of the way. Mendenhall, the Big Ten's third-leading rusher at better than 122 yards a game, had 100 by halftime, and his two touchdowns carried Illinois to a 17-6 lead.
"That guy's got muscles," Wisconsin cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu said. "He's just a hard runner."
The Illini didn't pound the ball inside until late, relying instead on a no-huddle spread offense and the option.
"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."
Although Williams passed and ran Illinois to the lead, it was the sophomore quarterback's relief, Eddie McGee, who essentially sealed the win.
For the second week in a row, Zook sent McGee in during the second half. Against Penn State, the redshirt freshman ripped off a 53-yard run to secure the win. This time, he scored on a 5-yard keeper that put the Illini up 31-19 with 5 1/2 minutes to go.
Zook said Williams hyperextended a knee but probably could have played again.
Wisconsin quarterback Tyler Donovan threw two interceptions in Illinois territory, the first to safety Kevin Mitchell and the second to cornerback Vontae Davis. The 6-foot Davis out-jumped the 6-foot-4 Travis Beckum at the Illini 29 with just over 10 minutes left.
Wisconsin grabbed the momentum and quieted a sold-out Memorial Stadium when running back P.J. Hill leaned into the end zone from 1 yard out to cap a 78-yard drive that got them within 24-19 in the fourth quarter.
After McGee's touchdown made it 31-19, Donovan hit tight end Garrett Graham for a 12-yard touchdown with 1:31 left.
However, the Badgers couldn't pounce on the onside kick, and Illinois ran out the clock.
Donovan completed 27 of 49 passes for 392 yards with two touchdowns, but didn't speak with reporters after the game. Bielema said his senior quarterback would take the loss -- and the interceptions -- hard.
"It's going to hurt him," Bielema said. "He's got to be a guy who takes the good with the bad."
Hill entered the game as the Big Ten's top running back, averaging 133.4 yards a game. Bielema said Hill injured his groin during the game, and the Illini held him to 83 yards on 21 carries and a touchdown.
He managed only 30 yards rushing in the first half, and the effect was obvious on the Badgers' offense. Wisconsin didn't score until less than three minutes were left in the half on a 38-yard field goal by Taylor Mehlhaff.
Williams was far more effective on the ground than through the air. He completed 12 of 19 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown, a pitch to Mendenhall that was ruled a forward pass.
The Badgers contained freshman sensation Arrelious Benn, who scored twice against Penn State. The Illinois receiver caught five passes for only 51 yards.