After getting to 6th win, Illini enjoy bye week, Thanksgiving break.

 

CHAMPAIGN -- Illinois football coach Ron Zook was doing what comes natural for him Sunday. He talked recruiting.

Otherwise, Zook could relax a bit after the Illini defeated Northwestern 48-27 at Wrigley Field Saturday to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2007 -- and just the fourth time in 16 seasons. With the Illini (6-5 overall, 4-4 in the Big Ten) idle this week, Zook and his assistants work on recruiting Monday and Tuesday before returning to practice Thursday.

The Illini play at Fresno State to end the regular season on Dec. 3 (9:15 p.m., ESPN2) after the historic day in the Friendly Confines.

"It's a game that a lot of people will remember for the rest of their lives,'' Zook said. "It was big. You can't really get into all of that until you finish the season.''

Q: Did Zook save his job with the win?

A: Athletic director Ron Guenther's experiment of hiring two strong coordinators, overhauling the staff and taking away some of the responsibilities from Zook looked good in the middle of the season, when the Illini were 5-3 -- with three respectable losses. But the critics jumped on Zook during the two-game losing streak with a bowl bid on the line.

Guenther wanted improvement. He's got it. Zook left them grumbling with his decisions during a two-game losing streak with a bowl berth on the line, but the Illini moved from three wins last season to six with one game left. Plus the bowl game. A bigger question remains over the ability for Illinois to keep this coaching staff intact.

The offense averaged 45.4 points and 442 yards over the last five games under first-year coordinator Paul Petrino. He's a forward thinker -- the use of guard Hugh Thornton as a blocking back on six or seven plays vs. Northwestern showed the depth of his planning -- and he was determined to go out and win the game with aggressive playcalling.

Powerful programs will take a hard look at him in the coaching merry-go-round in the offeseason. Vic Koenning's defense rebounded against Northwestern, and his side of the ball has been the season's most dramatic improvement, even with the two bad games against Michigan and Minnesota. Koenning dodged reporters after the Northwestern win.

Q: Where are the Illini headed during bowl season?

A: It appears Illinois is headed to a bowl date in Texas. The Big Ten has contracts with the TicketCity Bowl in Dallas on Jan. 1 (at the Cotton Bowl stadium) and the Texas Bowl in Houston on Dec. 29. The Insight Bowl is a possibility, and a win at Fresno State would keep the Illini in consideration for the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville on Jan. 1, an Illinois official said Saturday.

One key element is the likelihood of the Big Ten getting two BCS berths. Wisconsin is in the driver's seat for the Rose Bowl slot. If Ohio State beats Michigan, the Buckeyes are a strong candidate to earn their eighth BCS bowl in nine seasons.

Q: What's next for Illini RB Mikel Leshoure?

A: The junior set single-game school and Wrigley records with 330 yards rushing, and Leshoure averaged 10 yards per carry even though Northwestern stacked the box in the second half. Leshoure reminded NFL scouts how to spell his name after spreading it across the record book vs. the Wildcats.

''I think Mikel is as good a running back as there is in this league,'' Zook said.

Q: Was that the last football game in Wrigley?

A: Looks like it. It's hard to justify playing a game in a stadium where "rules modifications'' are needed. Wrigley is a great venue. The atmosphere was terrific, but there was some bad P.R. on this one. The one-way field -- teams could only run offense toward the west end zone -- still meant offenses worked toward an end zone remarkably close to the Cubs dugout.

The Cubs said earlier last week they'd like to see the Illinois-Northwestern game played every season at Wrigley. No chance, because Illinois would rather play more games at renovated Memorial Stadium than take games to neutral sites.

"It was an amazing thing,'' Zook said. "I'm not sure I'd be willing to give up a home game.''

The tight locker room wasn't a big deal, Zook said, because the Illini also go cheek-to-cheek on trips to Northwestern and Michigan State.

"I'd rather go in that (Wrigley) locker room than go to the Northwestern visiting locker room,'' Zook said.