After a respectable loss to Ohio State, Illinois travels to Penn State for the best chance to win in the rugged three-game stretch to start Big Ten Conference play.

 

CHAMPAIGN -- There's no debate over the improvement with Illinois football after a 24-13 loss to No. 2 Ohio State Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Remember, this was a program that didn't even compete against Ohio State in a humbling 30-0 loss in the Horseshoe last season that eroded any remaining confidence just three games  into last season.

The next step for a program attempting to rebound is leaving the field with a victory, not a moral victory. Illinois (2-2 overall, 0-1 in the Big Ten) plays at Penn State (3-2, 0-1) Saturday (11 a.m.).

"Both teams are in a must-win situation,'' said Illini coach Ron Zook Sunday. That's true if you're talking about winning the Big Ten title, but it's not the case when the goal is getting to six wins and a bowl berth.

Q: What are Illinois' chances of winning in Happy Valley?

A: Everyone looked at the three-game swing to start the Big Ten season. Even the Illini called it "The Stretch,'' therefore understanding the importance of such a rugged start to the Big Ten season before reaching the second half of the campaign, when games appear more manageable.

During these three games, the date with the Nittany Lions sets up as the best opportunity for victory for the Illini. No. 2 Ohio State was too much for the Illini to handle, even with Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor limited in the second half with a strained quadriceps muscle. If Michigan State was the conference sleeper before a 34-24 win over Wisconsin Saturday, the 17th-ranked Spartans became more of a serious title threat after dispatching the Badgers.

With coach Joe Paterno looking older and his program trying to piece together a winner, this is Illinois' best chance to score its first win all time after losing the first six tries there. Penn State plays behind a makeshift offensive line and leans on its running game to carry freshman quarterback Rob Bolden. (Penn State ranks 10th in the league in total offense, just ahead of Illinois.)

This isn't a powerhouse Penn State team, a fact proven by a pair of decisive 24-3 losses to top-ranked Alabama and No. 15 Iowa. 

Q: What was the lasting memory from the game against Ohio State?

A: The Illini defense is the most improved in the league. The Illini became tougher in the middle behind junior Corey Liuget. The defensive backfield has been resilient depsite injuries. Junior Tavon Wilson, who moved from cornerback to safety a week before the season, is the unsung hero back there.

At linebacker, junior Martez Wilson is beginning to make plays, and the return of Michael Buchanan from a two-game suspension following a DUI arrest made a big difference. Not only does it give Illinois one more playmaker, it helped with depth at the bandit and defensive end slots.

"It's the second game Mike played (at bandit),'' Zook said. "He didn't play that many plays. He's a couple games behind. It takes time to get up to speed.''

Q: What's the chance of Illinois being closer to 100 percent healthy?

A: There's reason for optimism for Illinois. After staying close with Ohio State, the Illini will likely begin to see injured players return to action in October, returning more playmakers to the field and building more depth.

Wide receiver Eddie McGee limped through a play or two against Ohio State and should improve more this week from a severely sprained ankle suffered on Sept. 11 against Southern Illinois. Cornerback Terry Hawthorne and fullback-tight end Zach Becker are recovering from stress fractures. They didn't dress while wearing walking boots against Ohio State. Hawthorne was doing rehab work in the pool Sunday, and Becker has been cleared by a specialist from Indianapolis who performed his surgery.

But those three have been in a holding pattern for a month. Safety Steve Hull suffered a sprained left ankle against the Buckeyes that wasn't as bad as McGee's injury, Zook said, and is listed as day to day. He walked off the field with the ankle wrapped following the loss Saturday.