BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — As Illinois coach Ron Zook made his way off Indiana's field, he gazed up at a pocket of Illini fans in the stands, thrust both arms in the air and stuck out six fingers.
As fans chanting "6-and-0" reminded him, the No. 19 Illini reached a milestone that often remains an elusive stress-inducing goal until the end of the season. Instead of fretting about bowl eligibility until Thanksgiving, Illinois got that out of the way on a summer-like October Saturday with a 41-20 victory against Indiana.
The triumph marked the first time since 1992 the team can earn back-to-back bowl trips. These Illini are also the first to go 6-0 since the 1951 group started 7-0 en route to a 9-0-1 season that included beating Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
"I congratulated (players) on being bowl eligible but if any of them say anything to you, I'd be surprised," Zook said afterward with his poker face back on. "We're worried about the next game."
Nothing would be more of a pleasant surprise around Champaign than a victory at home next weekend against Ohio State.
"We wanted to be 6-0 going into this game," quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. "We're excited about the point we got to right now."
But Illinois is preaching humility — and coaches have a couple of examples that can drive that lesson home.
In their first road game of the season, Illinois (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) fell behind 10-0 with sloppy errors.
The first 12 seconds of the game delivered a shock as Shane Wynn returned the opening kickoff 99 yards for an Indiana (1-5, 0-2) touchdown.
After Illinois running back Donovonn Young fumbled, the Hoosiers capitalized with a field goal for a 10-0 lead.
"Our guys don't worry about that stuff," Zook said.
Indeed, they didn't look frazzled.
Scheelhaase, who passed for 210 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 88 yards and another score,, found a wide-open Jenkins down field for a 77-yard score. On the next possession, cornerback Tavon Wilson scooped up a fumble and returned it 66 yards for a 14-10 lead.
"That was the igniter," Zook said.
And defensive end Whitney Mercilus doused any Indiana chance of finding a spark.
He finished with three sacks and forced two fumbles, while tackling Indiana for a total of 28 lost yards, as part of a defense that held the Hoosiers to less than two yards per carry.
"We told each other, 'Let's buckle down and show them that we're the kind of defense that can really contend in the Big Ten,'" Mercilus said.
While Illinois fans celebrated the team's success, they were equally dumbfounded by the decision to go for a 2-point conversion while leading 20-13 with 7 minutes 18 seconds left before halftime. Afterward Zook initially said the team was up five points, then said they were down by five before conceding that he may have lost track of the score.
"We talked about it when we were going down the field, as we were going to go for two," he said. "Maybe I didn't know what the score was. That's happened to me before. … I have to go back and look at it. That will give you something to pound us about."