CHAMPAIGN — A revved-up
student section in a crowded Memorial Stadium under the Saturday night lights set the scene for the rare special evening Illini players had talked about all week.
Illinois made the most of a rare occurrence in hosting a ranked nonconference team, beating No. 22
17-14 to end a 10-game losing streak to ranked opponents and ignite hope that this team is one that will restore Illinois' reputation in the
"We've taken some steps," Illini coach Ron Zook said. "We're continuing to get where we're supposed to get. This is a great win for us. It's a great win for the season, but we're going to get a bunch more of these."
The victory in front of 50,669 fans should help ease Illini supporters' worries after Illinois failed to deliver a follow-up hit to the 2007
season, when Illinois beat its last ranked opponent by upsetting No. 1 Ohio State. This marks the first time since 2001 that Illinois started a season 3-0 and could land the team in the Top 25.
The Illini's underdog defense delivered pressure on 6-foot-8 Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler. The Illini threw a whole playbook of schemes at Osweiler, sacking him six times and intercepting him twice.
"They brought a lot of pressure," Osweiler said. "Shoot, it seemed like almost every snap. (We) were seeing a lot of different fronts, stunts and blitzes."
No one measured up more than sophomore linebacker
Brown had 11/2 sacks and 31/2 tackles for losses. His third-quarter interception as Arizona State drove into Illinois territory was as game-changing as his crushing hit in the first quarter that caused Osweiler to cough up the ball and allow Glenn Foster to recover it.
"It feels good to finally come into my own," said Brown, who finished with seven tackles.
Illinois, which also suffered three turnovers, saw its offense stall after taking a 10-7 first-quarter lead on a Jason Ford 1-yard touchdown and a 20-yard Derek Dimke field goal. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw his first interception of the season, leaving for one play with a right shoulder injury in the fourth quarter.
Scheelhaase threw for just 56 yards and completed just five more passes after the first quarter, finishing with 135 yards on 11 of 15 passing. He connected when he had to, though.
After Arizona State took a 14-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, Illinois finally took advantage of a Sun Devils' turnover when Whitney Mercilus' hit forced Osweiler to fumble and linebacker Ian Thomas recovered. Scheelhaase found A.J. Jenkins for a 16-yard touchdown strike to pull the Illini ahead by a field goal with less than two minutes to play.
The final score delivered the message Illinois intended to send.
"We showed the country we're contenders," Thomas said.