Illini drag Michigan back to Big Ten's bottom -

Illini drag Michigan back to Big Ten's bottom

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) -- Michigan and Illinois started the day Saturday in very different positions, one looking for a win that would punch their ticket for the post season and the other groping to find some way to end a five-game losing streak.

After a 38-13 Illinois upset, the Wolverines and the Illini have a little more in common, though they appear headed in different directions.

The Illini (2-6, 1-5) have their first Big Ten win, finally got the kind of game they thought they'd play all year long and maybe, just maybe, found the kind of running back in Mikel LeShoure they've been looking for since Rashard Mendenhall packed his bags for the Steelers two seasons ago.

Michigan (5-4, 1-4) has lost two in a row and has three shots at getting the sixth win that would make the Wolverines bowl eligible, but two of those games are against Wisconsin and Ohio State.

"We're still coming in every day trying to work and get better," said linebacker Stevie Brown, disappointed after being flagged for interference in his own end zone, a call that set up Illinois' third touchdown and put the Illini up 21-13.

Wolverine players said last week that they didn't understand why Illinois had lost five in a row, given that most of the Illini who beat Michigan 45-20 last year in Ann Arbor were back. But there wasn't much doubt that Illinois -- which hadn't beaten Michigan at home since 1983 -- should have been the easiest game left on the Michigan schedule.

Instead, Michigan gave up 500 yards of offense -- 377 of it on the ground -- and lost three fumbles.

"We just didn't play well defensively, and the missed tackles were upsetting," Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. "But what's more upsetting to me is when the ball is on the ground and it seems like it's there for an eternity, and we weren't able to get on it. We've got to look at everything we're doing and try to fix it before next weekend."

With Saturday's win and Penn State and Ohio State already behind it, Illinois is looking at a Big Ten schedule that offers some reasons for optimism. Only Minnesota and Northwestern remains, though the Illinois still have non-conference dates with Fresno State and Cincinnati.

A big reason for that optimism has to be the running of LeShoure, along with that of quarterback Juice Williams, who had his best of the season with 97 yards on the ground, and fellow sophomore Jason Ford (131 yards on 12 carries and a 79-yard touchdown.)

LeShoure is a Champaign native, a 6-foot, 225-pound battering ram of a back with more speed than you might at first think.

But since coming to campus he's struggled to stand out from the five-back rotation Zook has used since Mendenhall left after his junior season for the NFL.

Until the past couple of weeks.

LeShoure had 122 yards a week ago in a loss at Purdue, then really cut loose Saturday for 150 yards on 21 carries against the Wolverines.

His biggest play against Michigan was a 70-yard burst through the middle of the Michigan defense for a touchdown that gave Illinois a 14-13 third-quarter lead that it never gave up. Two Wolverine defensive backs chasing him over the last 40 yards couldn't catch him.

But LeShoure's other 80 yards were telling. Most were in tight spaces, often after he'd been hit by would-be tacklers. The best might have come three plays before his 70-yard TD.

Illinois faced a third-and-three on its own 8-yard line. LeShoure ran left and into two Wolverines a yard shy of the first down, but lowered a shoulder and drove both back two yards, keeping the drive alive. If he hadn't, Illinois would have been punting out of its own end zone while still trailing 13-7.

"(The coaches) preach yards after contact," LeShoure said, giving credit to running backs coach Reggie Mitchell. "He tells us to make the defense tackle us. We just want to keep our feet moving regardless if we get touched behind the line of scrimmage or in front of it."

Zook isn't comparing LeShoure to Mendenhall, whose 1,681-yard season pushed Illinois to the Rose Bowl. But local sportswriters said Saturday that he's starting to look like the dominant back he was in high school, and the Illini coach said LeShoure is becoming a good college runner.

"LeShoure ran harder today than ever before," Zook said Saturday night. "He sticks it up in there."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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