A two-game losing streak has doused much of the euphoria generated by Illinois' football team so far this season.

A two-game losing streak has doused much of the euphoria generated by Illinois' football team so far this season.

Those back-to-back losses put a five-game winning streak in the rearview mirror. The 27-17 loss to Michigan on Saturday was tough for Illini fans to swallow, especially with how the loss transpired.

A muffed punt in the fourth quarter at the Illinois 13-yard line gift-wrapped the go-ahead touchdown for Michigan. The Illini's 107 yards in penalties had Illinois fans crying foul.

But what must be remembered is that Illinois entered the season regarded as a second-division team in the Big Ten Conference and a long shot to reach bowl season for the first time in six years.

When Illinois (5-3 overall, 3-2 in the Big Ten) hosts Ball State (5-3, 3-2 in the Mid-American Conference) in a non-conference game Saturday (11 a.m., Big Ten Network) on homecoming weekend, the Illini could gain bowl eligibility for the first time in six seasons.

Since this could happen before the end of October, the Illini must be considered ahead of schedule.

"You look at the schedule, we could conceivably finish 9-3, or we could finish 5-7,'' coach Ron Zook said. "We can still do things at the end of the year where we can all be happy.

"We've got to take care of us, not get too caught up in that it's a tailspin or we're satisfied. I don't think our guys are satisfied. We had a great week of practice (leading up to the Michigan game). Maybe we were trying too hard.''

From here, the Illini will likely be favored in games against Ball State, Minnesota and Northwestern.

"They're going to understand this game (against Ball State) becomes the most important game of the year,'' Zook said.

Scouts told Zook that Ball State sophomore quarterback Nate Davis "is the best in the Midwest.'' Davis has thrown for 2,286 yards and 20 touchdowns.

The Illini will continue to juggle starter Juice Williams and Eddie McGee at quarterback, and Zook will keep an eye on junior receiver Kyle Hudson, who failed to catch a Michigan punt midway through the fourth quarter. His drop was recovered by the Wolverines, who took a 24-17 lead by covering the 13 yards in two plays.

"Kyle has proven he's the best,'' Zook said. "It's more how Kyle handles it than how I handle it, if he comes back and he's fine with it. I told Kyle it's like striking out, maybe a little more than that. You get back up and want to swing again.

"I've been on him that you can't let the ball (bounce). We're losing yards there. You have to field them. That's not an easy job back there. He'll do extra work to make sure he's 100 percent confident.''

Sophomore tight end Mike Hoomanawanui didn't play against Michigan after straining his back in pregame warmups. Junior defensive end Derek Walker has a sore foot. Otherwise, Illinois' health is OK, Zook said.

Note

Four-star defensive end Corey Liuget of Hialeah High School in Miami gave the Illini a verbal commitment Saturday. Liuget also had scholarship offers from Michigan, Miami, Georgia, Florida State, Auburn and Alabama. Illinois already had four-star commitments from quarterback Jacob Charest, tackle Graham Pocic and junior college safety Donsay Hardeman.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. For more coverage, read Illini Talk blog at www.sj-r.com and www.pjstar.com.