Illinois RB gains momentum from 'Bus'

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When Illinois' high-powered running attack stalls early in games, coach Ron Zook, a former Steelers assistant, gets it jump-started by shifting gears back to "The Bus."

  • Who: Penn State (3-1, 0-1) vs. Illinois (3-1, 1-0), noon.
  • Where: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.
  • TV/Radio: Big Ten Network, WEAE-AM (1250) and Penn State Radio Network.

"I was telling Rashard [Mendenhall] and the offensive line that when I was with the Steelers, sometimes we would come out and Jerome Bettis would not do so well that first quarter, but he would keep banging away," Zook said. "By the third quarter, no one would want to tackle him."

The opposition is experiencing a similar problem in bringing down Mendenhall. This talented junior tailback is the second-leading rusher in the Big Ten Conference (134.0 yards per game) and he is tied for the league lead in scoring (12.0).

Mendenhall was named the conference's offensive player of the week after rushing for a career-high 214 yards in a victory at Indiana Saturday.

The surprising Fighting Illini (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) is Division I-A's No. 5 rushing team, averaging 265.5 yards per game, and Penn State has the No. 6 run defense, allowing 54.8 yards.

Mendenhall, who rushed for 161 yards last year against the Lions, figures to be plenty busy Saturday when Illinois plays No. 21 Penn State (3-1, 0-1) at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill.

It's the most important home game in six years for the Illini, who have suffered through five consecutive losing seasons and are 16-45 since their most recent Big Ten championship in 2001.

"Our guys know this is a big game because it's a Big Ten game," Zook said. "It's a great opportunity because it's a ranked team. My players are excited.

"I don't think that there's any question that we can go and compete against top teams. I'm assuming our crowd is going to be crazy, and we'll draw energy from them."

Illinois won its Big Ten opener for the first time since 1993. It's riding a modest three-game winning streak.

Zook, sacked as Florida's coach after compiling a three-year record of 23-14 from 2002-04, won two games each of his first two seasons at Illinois, but he was 1-15 in league play.

He already has equaled his Big Ten win total this season and has an overall mark of 7-20.

"Ron is a good coach," Penn State's Joe Paterno said. "He kind of got a bad deal at Florida. He's been a good recruiter. He's a very, very enthusiastic guy. Everywhere he's been, he's been successful."

Two highly touted recruiting classes have boosted Zook's hopes for rebuilding.

"Our program is not where we need to be," said Zook, who served as a special teams coach with the Steelers under Bill Cowher from 1996-98. "We still have a long way to go."

Illinois threw a scare into Penn State a year ago at Beaver Stadium. The Illini led, 9-3, in the third quarter and pulled to within 17-12 late in the fourth quarter before falling, 26-12.

Mendenhall burned Penn State for a 79-yard run.

Sophomore quarterback Isiah "Juice" Williams teams with Mendenhall to give Illinois one of the most versatile option offenses in the Big Ten. Williams, a dangerous scrambler, has thrown for 377 yards and run for 149 more.

Freshman receiver Arrelious Benn has a team-high 18 catches for 202 yards, to go along with 82 yards rushing.

"I have a lot of respect for Mendenhall as a player," Penn State linebacker Dan Connor said. "He's big and strong."

After Penn State visits Saturday, Illinois welcomes Wisconsin the following week, followed by Michigan. The Illini plays at Ohio State Nov. 10.

"One thing about the Big Ten, if you get fat and happy and think you're pretty good, it's a humbling game," Zook said. "It'll bring you back down to your knees if you're not careful."

Ron Musselman can be reached at .


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