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October 3, 2011

Monday with Mike: High-five for Illinois

This past weekend was notable for a number of big comebacks (or big chokes, depending on what side of the field you were on).

One of the most important was Illinois'. The Illini rallied from 28-10 down midway through the third quarter to edge Northwestern 38-35. The winning TD came on a 1-yard run by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase with 13 seconds left to cap off a six-play, 69-yard drive that took 1:02.

Illinois actually had taken a 31-28 lead with 6:53 left before Northwestern woke up to retake the lead at 35-31 with 1:15 remaining. The Illini then went on their winning march.

"We didn't do a lot of things like we have," Illinois coach Ron Zook told reporters afterward. "But we did the things we had to do to win the game. ... As I told [the players] at halftime, the score doesn't count until it's over, and then they played their tails off and finished strong."

The victory gave Illinois a 5-0 mark; incredibly, it's the first time in 60 years that the Illini have started that well. To give you an idea of how long ago that is, 1951 was Woody Hayes' first season as Ohio State's coach. The Illini went on to finish 9-0-1 that season (the tie was against Ohio State), including a 40-7 demolition of Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

[Fox: Week 5 award winners ]

In the ensuing 59 seasons, the Illini have been to just 14 bowls, including six Jan. 1 games.

They're in line to go to another Jan. 1 game this season. Other than a visit from Wisconsin on Nov. 19, the schedule isn't that daunting. The Illini still haven't played a road game this season, but they have just four of those and they're against Indiana (next week), Purdue, Minnesota and Penn State. In short, that's road games against the three worst teams in the Big Ten and against offensively challenged Penn State, whom the Illini blasted last season.

In addition to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan also make trips to Champaign, but both are flawed -- Ohio State's offense has been awful and Michigan's defense hasn't shown anything against an offense with a pulse (Notre Dame had 513 yards and San Diego State had 376).

So, does that mean Illinois goes 12-0 or 11-1? Not likely, because this is Illinois. Still, the Illini have some playmakers on both sides of the ball and are well-balanced offensively, and a 9-3 or 10-2 finish seems likely.

[Megargee: Week 5 winners and losers]

Despite giving up 35 points to Northwestern, the defense has been a pleasant surprise. The Illini are allowing just 295.6 yards per game and have been especially stout against the run (79.0 yards per game).

The Illini's three best players from last season -- tailback Mikel Leshoure (second-round pick), defensive tackle Corey Liuget (first round) and linebacker Martez Wilson (third round) -- turned pro early. The defense was considered a particularly big question heading into the season.

But this season's unit is a lot better than last season's. Ends Michael Buchanan and Whitney Mercilus have emerged as consistent pass rushers (they have combined for 10 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss), and sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown has been solid in his first season as a starter, with 30 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks and two pass breakups.

The Illini have won four of their games because of their offense, putting up at least 463 yards of offense in those wins. The other victory was over Arizona State, and the defense won that one, giving up 362 yards but holding the Sun Devils to 14 points, forcing three turnovers and coming up with six sacks.

If nothing else, Zook certainly can recruit, and a look at this season's key players shows that. Mercilus is from Ohio. Brown hails from Tennessee. Buchanan is from the Chicago area. Scheelhaase, a dual-threat quarterback, is from Kansas City. Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, who had a monster game (12 receptions for 268 yards and three TDs) against Northwestern, is a Floridian, as is leading rusher Troy Pollard. No. 2 rusher Donovonn Young, a true freshman, is from Texas. Leading tackler Ian Thomas, the middle linebacker, is from Maryland. Free safety Trulon Henry, the team's interceptions leader, is a junior college transfer.

[Rivals.com experts: Week 5 what we learned ]

Zook also showed a golden touch with the revamping of his staff after the 2009 season. He brought in two new coordinators -- Paul Petrino from Arkansas to run the offense and Vic Koenning from Kansas State to oversee the defense. Those moves paid off last season with a Texas Bowl bid, and even bigger things are on the horizon this season.

"It's good," Scheelhaase said of being 5-0. "More importantly than that, we're 1-0 in our conference. That's exactly where we wanted to be. With the competition we've faced, we feel like we've seen a lot of different styles, and to come out 5-0 after these first five games, that were all at home, we did a good job of [taking advantage of] that."

Now they get to see if they can take full advantage of a league schedule that doesn't include games against Nebraska and Iowa.

It's alive!

NCAA president Mark Emmert hadn't really been heard from in regard to conference realignment, but he came out of hibernation last week to express his distaste for the process.

"I'm not concerned so much about one university moving from one conference to another or exploring what their options are," Emmert said in an interview with The Associated Press. "What I want, and what I've been encouraging schools to do, is look at what the end is.

"The end is not having 16 schools in a conference or doing a deal. It's, 'Why are you going in that direction and what are the outcomes you are trying to achieve?' They better be looking at it to see what it will do for student-athletes. Will it allow us to create more revenue to support these big intercollegiate programs, and whether we're contemplating something that won't create more impositions for our student-athletes."

[Y! Sports Shop: Show your school colors with college football team gear]

He's right, even if none of the conference commissioners - or school presidents - are listening.

Then again, it's hard to take Emmert seriously when he also says something like this: "I think what came across [with realignment] is that all we care about is money and what we can do that is to our advantage. Nobody was talking about what this is going to do for student-athletes or intercollegiate athletic programs."

The NCAA president lecturing others on making sure it's not all about the money? That's like politicians lecturing others on ... well, anything.

Can they get their point across?

Will Muschamp's first true SEC showdown didn't go as he would've liked, as Alabama spanked Florida 38-10.

Florida scored on its first offensive play (a one-wide receiver set in which that receiver, Andre Debose, flew past Alabama CB Dre Kirkpatrick and hauled in a 65-yard scoring toss), moved smartly downfield for a field goal on its second possession, then was stymied. The second half was a dream/nightmare scenario - a dream for the Tide, a nightmare for the Gators - because Gators starting quarterback John Brantley was lost for the game late in the first half with what Florida termed a leg injury.

The Tide held the Gators to 46 total yards in the second half with true freshman quarterback Jeff Driskel at the controls.

[Expert picks: How we did in Week 5]

If Brantley misses next week's game at LSU, you have to wonder if Florida can score. Currently, the Gators have the nation's second-longest non-shutout streak, at 288 games (Michigan is first, at 340). The Gators haven't been blanked since losing 16-0 to Auburn in 1988, but LSU certainly has the defensive talent to keep Florida off the scoreboard if Brantley can't go.

Florida's offensive line was overwhelmed by Alabama's front seven. LSU's linebackers aren't as good as Alabama's, but the Tigers' defensive front is the best in the nation, and that can't be comforting for Muschamp.

Grid bits

We're five weeks into the season, and there are 15 unbeaten teams. Every team in the Big East, MAC, Sun Belt and WAC as well as the independent ranks has at least one loss. Conference USA, the Mountain West and the Pac-12 have just one unbeaten team each. The Big 12 has five unbeaten teams, followed by the Big Ten with three, and the SEC and the ACC with two each.

TCU already has lost twice this season, falling 50-48 in its opener to Baylor and 40-33 in overtime to SMU on Saturday. The loss snapped the Horned Frogs' 22-game home winning streak. The loss also once again exposed TCU's secondary. In the two losses, TCU has allowed 763 passing yards and 10 passing touchdowns. Last season, when it finished 13-0, TCU allowed 10 passing TDs the entire season. SMU's J.J. McDermott threw four TD passes Saturday, meaning TCU already has given up 13 this season, against just two picks. The Horned Frogs play at San Diego State next week. Aztecs QB Ryan Lindley has thrown eight TD passes and just one interception this season.

If you wanted to see scintillating quarterback play, you needed to watch the Arizona-USC game. The Trojans won 48-41. Trojans QB Matt Barkley threw for 468 yards and four TDs, while Wildcats QB Nick Foles threw for 425 yards and four TDs. The duo combined for 893 yards and 73 completions. The NCAA record for combined completions in a game is 81, set in the 1990 Houston-TCU game. The record for combined yardage total is 1,253, from that same game.

Washington QB Keith Price deserves some credit. He is averaging 241.8 yards per game and has 17 TDs and four picks in leading the Huskies to a 4-1 start. Predecessor Jake Locker's single-season high for TD passes was 21. The Price-led Huskies have scored at least 30 points in each game; the last time Washington did that was under Rick Neuheisel in 2000, when it finished 11-1 and won the Rose Bowl.

The Georgia-Mississippi State game wasn't particularly entertaining, as host Georgia dominated in a 24-10 win. But there were some pre-game fireworks, as Mississippi State players gathered on the big "G" at midfield of Sanford Stadium. Georgia players rushed to "defend" the logo, and coaches and officials had to move in to break it up. After the game, Georgia players went to midfield and danced on the "G" themselves. The loss drops Mississippi State to 0-3 in the SEC, with games still remaining against South Carolina, Arkansas and Alabama.

[Y! Radio: Georgia QB Aaron Murray]

If anybody associated with the ACC was watching, the Rutgers-Syracuse game might have led to the league rescinding its invitation to Syracuse and re-thinking any possible invitation to Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights won 19-16 in overtime The teams combined for nine turnovers and five missed field goals. There were 21 penalties and the quarterbacks combined to go 44-of-89 (49 percent) for 466 yards, which is a paltry 5.2 yards per attempt, and four picks. Syracuse also missed a PAT.

Western Kentucky has lost 18 in a row at home after falling 26-22 to Arkansas State. Arkansas State scored the winning TD on a 1-yard run with 43 seconds left. Ryan Aplin threw for 396 yards and two TDs for Arkansas State.

Utah State is 1-3 after Friday night's 27-24 loss to BYU, but the Aggies easily could be -- should be? -- unbeaten. They blew a 10-point lead in the final 2;08 to lose 42-38 to Auburn in the opener. They gave up a touchdown and the tying two-point conversion with 42 seconds left in their third game against Colorado State, then lost 35-34 in double-overtime when their two-point conversion run failed. On Friday, Utah State led by 11 early in the fourth quarter, then gave up the winning TD with 11 seconds left on a tipped pass. BYU drove 96 yards in nine plays in 2:25 for the winning score -- and the drive was engineered by backup QB Riley Nelson, a Utah State transfer.

Colorado led visiting Washington State 27-17 after a 1-yard TD run by Rodney Stewart with 5:11 left. Given that Washington State had won just two of its previous 25 road games, the Buffs had to feel good about winning their Pac-12 opener. Alas, Washington State rallied to score twice in a 1:25 span to steal a 31-27 win. WR Marquess Wilson caught the winning 63-yard TD pass with 1:10 left to complete a five-play, 90-yard drive that consumed 40 seconds. First-year Colorado coach Jon Embree was asked afterward why his team couldn't finish. His response: "I have no idea. We are up 10 with three minutes left, and we can't make a play on either side of the ball. I don't know what it is. We are practicing situations until we are blue in the face -- just for these situations. We failed to execute on either side of the ball. No excuse." He went on to say, "So when is it enough? When are they going to get tired of losing? When are they going to get tired of finding a way to lose because you know what, this staff, we've been here for five weeks and I'm tired of it. So if you've been here for five years, you've got to be tired of it, too."

Stanford's game against UCLA was the first time the Cardinal had played since star LB Shayne Skov was lost for the season with a knee injury. Skov is known for his excessive use of eye black, and each of Stanford's linebackers came out Saturday night with a lot of eye black in Skov's honor. Skov also is known for his Mohawk, but apparently Stanford's remaining linebackers have to draw the line somewhere.

Texas A&M, as everyone knows, is joining the SEC next season. One thing the Aggies might want to do is recruit better players on defense -- a lot better players. One week after Arkansas managed just 226 yards and 14 first downs on Alabama, the Hogs gashed Texas A&M for 581 and 28. That says a lot about Alabama's defense, obviously, but also, just as obviously, a lot about A&M's.

Michigan thoroughly smashed Minnesota 58-0. The Wolverines rolled up 580 yards and held the Golden Gophers to 177, including a 363-73 advantage on the ground. Minnesota managed just eight first downs and was 0-of-11 on third-down conversions. The Golden Gophers punted 10 times and committed nine penalties.

There were two FBS-FCS matchups this week, with the FBS teams going 2-0. This season, FBS teams are 83-6 against FCS competition; the losers are Minnesota (to North Dakota State), UNLV (to Southern Utah), New Mexico (to Sam Houston State in overtime), Western Kentucky (to Indiana State), Duke (to Richmond) and Oregon State (to Sacramento State).

Interesting times at Maryland, which went 9-4 last season but fired coach Ralph Friedgen after he was named the ACC's coach of the year. The Terps are 2-2 this season. Early last week, in the aftermath of a 38-7 beatdown administered by Temple, new coach Randy Edsall took a shot at the previous staff when he said, "When you come in with the type of program you are going to run, it takes time, most especially if young people aren't used to being held accountable or they are not used to doing things correctly all the time." Thursday, in an interview with a Baltimore radio station, Friedgen seemed to fire back. Among his responses: "I could care less about Maryland. I've burned my diploma." Friedgen is a Maryland alum.

For those wondering, the first BCS standings of the season come out Oct. 16. And the first Rivals.com 1-120 rankings of the season will be unveiled Tuesday at 1:20 p.m. Eastern time.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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