Over the past 12 weeks, Illinois has won more games than it won the previous four years.

Don't blink.


As fast as the football fortunes are changing at Illinois, you might miss something.


Two years ago, the Illini couldn't play. A year ago, they could play a little, but they couldn't win. Five months ago, head coach Ron Zook and his staff looked at the 12-game schedule for this fall and circled six games they thought were winnable.


Saturday afternoon, Zook smiled.


'We won the games we thought we should, and then we screwed up and won three more,' Zook joked, after the Illini wrapped up the regular season with a 41-22 victory over Northwestern.


This is no joke.


Over the past 12 weeks, Illinois has won more games than it won the previous four years. It has won six games in the Big Ten Conference; triple the number managed by those four predecessors. The Illini, tied with Michigan for second place in the league, are going to a bowl game, maybe even one played on New Year's Day.


Don't blink. The next big jump up the ladder of respectability could happen as quick as junior running back Rashard Mendenhall spots a sliver of daylight between two blockers and reverses field to bolt through the hole for big yards.


If you didn't see it with your own eyes, you really have no idea how awful Illinois football was when Zook took over as head coach.


The 2-9 record and winless Big Ten mark the Frightening Illini put up in Zook's first season only tells you they were bad. It doesn't begin to tell you how bad.


Effort was there. Talent was not. You could pretty much count the program's real football players on one hand, and they were overshadowed by all the guys who had neither the speed nor the skill to compete in the Big Ten. They couldn't make plays. And they didn't.


You had to figure Zook was out of his mind in 2005, signing a five-year contract to take on a reclamation project that had a decade written all over it.


But his rebuild has happened in little more time than it takes sophomore quarterback Juice Williams to step back, sucker the defense into his linemen's trap of pass blocks and scamper up the middle for another first down.


Two years ago, Illinois should have paid fans to attend games. A year ago, the Illini at least came close to winning a few. Eleven weeks ago, they came close to opening this season with a win, but fell seven points short of beating Missouri.


'Enough,' an impatient Zook said. 'I've had enough of being close.'


With that, the Illini stopped coming close and falling short, and started winning. Last week, they knocked Ohio State off the top of the national rankings. Saturday, they tore through Northwestern, which had beaten them four years in a row.


They are still a work in progress, too.


'We've been moving guys around, putting guys in different positions,' offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. 'It's been like a chess match finding the right place for everybody.'


But now Locksley looks down from his perch in the pressbox and sees playmakers popping up everywhere. Defenses opened the season knowing they must try to contain Mendenhall, who averages 127 rushing yards per game. But then Williams started to break out, slinging TD passes and becoming a deft option quarterback who rushed for 137 yards Saturday to bring his average to 110 over the past four games. Sensational freshman receiver Arrelious Benn is a threat to score whenever he touches the ball.


And now this.


At midseason, the coaches moved sophomore Jeff Cumberland from tight end to wide receiver, because he simply wasn't providing the quality blocking required. Cumberland is 6-feet-5 and 244 pounds — several inches taller and 40-50 pounds heavier than your average defensive back. And he runs 100 meters in 10.6 seconds.


'I'm a lot bigger than all the cornerbacks, and I might be faster than 75 percent of them,' Cumberland said.


Don't blink.


Saturday against Northwestern, Cumberland rushed once on a reverse for 18 yards, and he caught four passes for 131 yards. One was a 42-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown that fully displayed how lethal Cumberland can be. He sprinted right to left to get open, used his height and reach advantage to juggle-grab the high pass from Williams with one hand, then shook off two would-be tacklers at the 15.


'All I needed was a chance to make plays,' Williams said.


If you haven't yet seen these Illini with your own eyes, do yourself a favor. And don't blink.


'We still haven't played the best possible game we can play,' Williams said. 'We're just starting to get good.'


 


KIRK WESSLER is Journal Star executive sports editor/columnist. Contact him at (309) 686-3216 or kwessler@pjstar.com.