Juiced Up: What Ron Zook Means to Illinois

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Juiced Up: What Ron Zook Means to Illinois

IconEight minutes and nine seconds.

That's a lifetime in football.

Ohio State and Illinois had combined for 14 points in under two minutes to start the game. Now the underdogs had to run out 8:09 to preserve the win.

It seemed impossible.

But it happened.

Illinois QB Juice Williams bled the the Buckeyes to death with one third-down scramble after another. When it was over, the Illini had taken down the No. 1 team in the country—a monumental accomplishment for a program whose coach and quarterback have long been under fire.

The last few seasons have been bleak ones in Champaign. With their eighth victory of the year, the Illini have matched their combined win total from the previous four campaigns. Rock bottom came in 2003, when the team's only win came against a I-AA opponent.

Most experts had Illinois pegged to finish dead last in the Big 10 in 2007.

Coach Ron Zook inherited an empty cupboard upon taking over the head job in 2005, but he wasted no time in recruiting top-notch talent. Though the early returns were slight, with the only "highlights" coming in close losses against Wisconsin and Ohio State last year, Illinois fans began to take notice.

This season, the investment has paid off in spades.

Zook's model is one that other rebuilding programs—Notre Dame, for one—would do well to follow. Unlike Irish fans, the Illini faithful actually have something to look forward to.

Never thought I'd find myself writing that sentence.

The Ohio State win has the makings of breakthrough moment for the program. When Williams convinced Zook to go for it on 4th-and-inches from the Illini 34, Zook showed great faith in his up-and-down sophomore—and was richly rewarded.

When the final gun sounded, celebrations could be heard from Eugene to Baton Rouge—but no cheers were louder than the ones in Champaign. Zook isn't Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer—and that's okay, because the Illini don't need Spurrier or Meyer.

At Illinois, Ron Zook seems to fit the bill just fine.

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