In Big Ten opener, Illini face Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa, who hasn't played in a game since Achilles injury in November.


There's something to be said for surviving when the emotions aren't quite there, according to Illinois coach Ron Zook Sunday, one day after the Illini survived a 23-20 victory over Western Michigan.

With No. 24 Illinois (4-0) hosting Northwestern (2-1) the Big Ten Conference opener for both teams Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN2), Zook said the Illini will be ready emotionally. Despite the narrow win over the Mid-American Conference opponent, the Illini didn't move in the AP poll, and they appeared at No. 22 in the USA Today coaches poll.

Q: What are the keys for the game against Northwestern?

A: While Illinois is coming off two down-to-the-wire victories, the Wildcats rested up through the open date over the weekend and will likely get an emotional lift from the return of quarterback Dan Persa.

"I would be shocked if he doesn't play,'' Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said following practice Thursday.

Persa hasn't played since rupturing his right Achilles in the closing moments of a victory over Iowa on Nov. 13. When he didn't play in the season opener, the next probable date of return was the Big Ten opener. Persa sat on the sideline with his foot elevated during the Illini's 48-27 victory over Northwestern in Wrigley Field last November.

"I'm ready to go,'' Persa told reporters Thursday. "I don't consider myself injured anymore.''

Said Zook: "I figured if he was going to be able to play, he was playing against us.''

Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was more concerned with the Illini bouncing back physically.

"The best prep for Northwestern is getting back in the ice tub and trying to get our bodies back fresh,'' he said. "We have to find a way to match their freshness. They had a week off. We had two pretty physical games. We're going to have to find a way to play inspired football.''

Q: Who's in, who's out for Illini?

A: Zook said offensive tackle Corey Lewis would begin to work into team drills after a checkup on his surgically repaired knee late last week, but Le3wis isn't expected to play against Northwestern.

Don't be surprised if junior Ashante Williams worked his way into more snaps on defense after a three-game suspension following a DUI arrest in late July. Williams logged four plays on defense and play on special teams against Western Michigan. His return added depth in the secondary and presumably would allow Trulon Henry to play more at safety.

Although Illini team officials couldn't find anything in the rule book how the personal foul and disqualification of Illini offensive tackle Jeff Allen would affect his status for the Northwestern game, Zook was planning to call the league office Sunday to verify Allen's status against Northwestern.

Q: How deep is the injury report?

A: Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase spent Sunday trying to overcome a stiff neck, the result as a facemask in the first half. His head was pulled around during the play, and Zook said Scheelhaase's passing was affected by the bruised right shoulder suffered against Arizona State.

"He didn't throw quite as well (against Western Michigan),'' Zook said. "I have to believe that had a lot to do with his shoulder.''

Scheelhaase told Zook the shoulder felt better Sunday. Otherwise, the only injuries were thumbs, Zook said. He didn't elaborate.

  John Supinie can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.