The brutal truth was that he had a 21-39 record, 12-28 in the Big Ten, with one winning record in six seasons on the job. Yes, Zook delivered Illinois' first Rose Bowl appearance since 1983 three seasons ago, but that looked like ancient history coming off consecutive losing seasons that produced an 8-16 record.
That's why almost every preseason coaching hot seat list included Zook, who some felt should have been fired after last season's 3-9 debacle.
But Zook survived with a radically altered staff. He canned four assistants, demoted one and had another leave. The key hires were at the coordinator spots. Zook lured Vic Koenning from Kansas State to run the defense and Paul Petrino from Arkansas to operate the offense. And each is being paid well, with Koenning making $325,000 per year and Petrino $475,000.
Still, Zook didn't feel like this was a win-or-else season.
"I really don't think that's the case at all," Zook told Rivals.com before the season. "If that was the case, we wouldn't have hired the coaches that we hired. The guys came in here with multiyear contracts. We can't worry about that. The whole thing is to win."
That's what the Illini have done. Illinois is 3-2 and coming off the first victory at Penn State in school history. The Illini are thinking big as they head to Michigan State. A victory in East Lansing would make the Illini a legit Big Ten contender. But a loss to a 6-0 Spartans team won't derail the Illini, who could be favored in every remaining game (Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota at home, and Michigan, Northwestern and Fresno State on the road) after this weekend.
"I don't think there's any question that we're the underdog, and they're the team that's being hunted," Zook said of Michigan State. "It's the last chance we have of playing an undefeated Big Ten team, and we didn't do so well on the first one we played [24-13 loss to Ohio State]."
The Illini are a confident team whose only losses this season are by a combined 21 points to unbeatens Ohio State and Missouri. And Illinois was in both of those games into the fourth quarter.
Credit the new coordinators, who have had big impacts. Koenning has the defense ranked 21st in the nation in points allowed (17.0 ppg), 20th in total defense (304.8 ypg), 32nd in rush defense (117.0 ypg) and 56th in pass-efficiency defense (121.09). At the end of 2009, the Fighting Illini ranked 96th in scoring defense (30.2 ppg), 91st in total defense (403.3 ypg), 76th in rushing defense (154.4 ypg) and 103rd in pass-efficiency defense (142.77).
Petrino's offense is one of only three in the country to score on all of its red zone drives this season. In 16 trips inside the 20, the Illini have nine touchdowns and seven field goals.
"The thing we're trying to do is do what our players do best, particularly on the offensive side of the ball," Zook said. "The offense has done a great job of doing what [redshirt freshman quarterback] Nathan [Scheelhaase] is comfortable with, and we've had some success.
"I think the whole football team has bought into the opportunity to play this Michigan State football team."
Best matchup: Michigan QB Denard Robinson vs. Iowa's front seven. Robinson needs to have a big game for the Wolverines to have any chance to win. He's the No. 1 rusher in the Big Ten and No. 2 in the nation (165.2 ypg). But Michigan State muted "D-Rob" last week, limiting him to a season-low 86 rushing yards. Now comes Iowa, which ranks No. 1 in the Big Ten and No. 2 in the nation (63.2 ypg) against the run. Iowa yields just 2.4 yards per carry and is the only team in the nation that hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown.
Player on the spot: Purdue QB Rob Henry. With a reeling Minnesota team visiting West Lafayette on Saturday, Henry needs to continue to thrive if the Boilermakers hope to make a bowl. Subbing for the injured Robert Marve, who is out for the season with a knee injury, Henry excelled in his starting debut last week in a 20-17 victory at Northwestern that may have saved the Boilermakers' season. Henry, a redshirt freshman, was only 6-of-18 passing for 47 yards with a pick, but he ran 16 times for 132 yards and a touchdown to push Purdue to 3-2. If the Boilers lose to the Golden Gophers, their bowl hopes likely are dashed for a third consecutive season. It's all on Henry.
Numbers game: Wisconsin has allowed just five rushing touchdowns in its past 16 games. The Badgers have permitted only one this season. In addition, Wisconsin also has held 13 of its last 16 foes to less than 100 rushing yards. Those figures will be put to the test with top-ranked Ohio State visiting Madison on Saturday night. The Buckeyes average 217.3 rushing yards and have 14 rushing touchdowns this season. Rivals.com will have a comprehensive breakdown of the Ohio State-Wisconsin game on Friday.
What they're saying
"No, not really. I mean, we're fooling around, but if we had somebody like that, we'd probably be running that same offense, I guess." -- Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, on if he had anyone on the team trying to portray Michigan QB Denard Robinson in practice
"Enough is enough. Did you come to Penn State to lose or did you come to be a winner? Each person has to re-evaluate and check themselves and come out with a winning attitude." -- Penn State DT and captain Ollie Ogbu, on the Nittany Lions' 0-2 start in Big Ten play that has seen myriad injuries decimate the defense
"We feel going into every game that we need the two-way threat because sometimes the best decision that a quarterback makes is to tuck it and take off, and it just so happens when he tucks it and takes off, it could be 60 [yards]. So that's huge to us, having that ability." -- Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, on the importance of having QB Terrelle Pryor healthy so he's a threat as a runner and passer. Pryor ran just three times for zero yards in last week's 38-10 victory over Indiana. He strained his left quad the week before at Illinois
Etc.: Penn State, which is off this week, lost S Nick Sukay for the season to a torn pectoral muscle. He is the third starter to get hurt in as many games, following OT Lou Eliades and TE Garry Gilliam. Penn State says at least 13 players who would be first- or second-teamers have missed time with injuries. Joe Paterno said this may be the team's worst injury situation "in the 20 years some of our medical people have been here." Penn State next plays Oct. 23 against Minnesota. Key players listed as possible for that game are E Jack Crawford, S Andrew Dailey, LB Bani Gbadyu, DT Jordan Hill and LB Gerald Hodges. ... Northwestern also is off this week. ... Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez is 2-7 against ranked teams. ... Six Big Ten quarterbacks rank among the top 16 in the nation in passing efficiency, the most of any conference. ... Michigan State is aiming for its first 7-0 start since opening 9-0 in 1966. ... Purdue has won three Big Ten road games in succession. ... Wisconsin will play host to the nation's No. 1 team for the first time since 1997. The Badgers' last victory over a No. 1 team at home came against Michigan in 1981. ... Michigan State CB Chris L. Rucker will miss the Illinois game following his arrest for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. ... Wisconsin S Jay Valai is expected to play against Ohio State after missing the Minnesota game with an injury. ... Is another second-half swoon looming at Michigan? In 2008, the Wolverines opened 2-2, then dropped five in a row and seven of their last eight to finish 3-9. Last season, Michigan began 4-0 but ended the campaign by losing seven of its last eight en route to a 5-7 mark. Michigan started 5-0 this season before falling to Michigan State last week. The Wolverines play host to Iowa this week and also have games remaining against Penn State, Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin and Ohio State. ... Poor finishes also have plagued Michigan State in recent seasons. In 2009, the Spartans lost four of their last six to finish 6-7. In 2008, MSU opened 6-1 but went .500 the rest of the way to finish 9-4. In 2007, Michigan State began 4-0 but lost six of its last nine to close with a 7-6 mark.