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Illinois trying to end two-year losing streak to Hoosiers

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Associated Press Writer

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Ron Zook says he won't use the fact that Illinois hasn't beaten Indiana in his two-plus seasons in Champaign as a motivator for Saturday's game between the two teams.

Not his style, Zook says.

But don't believe that the Illini's 0-2 record since 2005 against their eastern neighbor is far from Zook's thoughts.

"Like I told our team last night, this is the third time we're gonna' play and we haven't won yet," Zook said during his regular Tuesday news conference.

"Our programs are very, very similar. We're both kind of improving at the same rate. The thing that they've done is they've beaten us twice," he said.

If the Illini's back-to-back losses against Indiana don't give Saturday's game in Bloomington extra significance for Illinois, those similarities might.

Indiana enters the game at 3-0, with talented sophomore quarterback Kellen Lewis leading an offense that's averaging 478 yards a game. Illinois is 2-1, and has consecutive wins for the first time since Zook's first two games in 2005 and comes off a 41-20 dissection of Syracuse on the road.

The winner opens Big Ten play 1-0 and should get a big lift. The loser will enter the next week looking for its first win against tougher competition -- Indiana at Iowa and Illinois at home against Penn State.

Illinois' defense versus Lewis figures to be one of the game's key matchups.

The Illini haven't allowed an opposing back to run for more than 100 yards this season, while Lewis has 317 yards rushing -- including 199 last weekend in a 41-24 win over Akron. He's sixth in the Big Ten in rushing yards, right behind Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall.

Lewis, a sophomore, also has passed for 643 yards -- 214 yards a game -- and nine touchdowns while throwing three interceptions.

"He can beat you with his feet and his arm," Zook said. "How do you defend that?"

Zook also said Tuesday that hasn't forgotten that Lewis had one of his first strong games last season in Champaign.

Lewis punched holes in the Illinois defense with his feet, rushing for 47 yards and a touchdown, and his arm with 240 yards passing. The Hoosiers came back from a 15-point first quarter deficit to win, 34-32.

"He was just using athletic ability and the skill around him," Zook said.

Linebacker Brit Miller compared Lewis to Illini quarterback Juice Williams. Both can run the ball, and are sometimes more dangerous when a play breaks down than when sticking to the playbook, Miller said.

"For the most part, you don't account for the quarterback in a lot of breakdown situations," he said. "It's not about the straightaway speed, it's about their elusiveness."

Williams is coming off what some say is his best college game. The sophomore threw for 97 yards and a touchdown, ran for 90 more and another TD and, most importantly, didn't make a fatal mistake.

He and Mendenhall will, at times, face eight- and nine-man fronts, Zook said Tuesday.

Mendenhall, who ran for 150 yards and three touchdowns last weekend at Syracuse, is practicing this week with a slight ankle sprain, Zook said, adding that the running back should be fine by Saturday.

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