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Illinois Fighting Illini Preview

Team Overview

Illinois has a tendency to start things quickly. Then they die just ask quickly. Last year they started off 2-0. They finished 2-9. Against Penn State the Fighting Illini took their first possession and marched down the field to take a 3-0 lead. Penn State went on to score the next 63 unanswered points. But Illinois did manage to finish strong and the final score was 63-10.

This year the Fighting Illini started off hot again with a 42-17 win over Northern Illinois. But then it looked like the house of cards was coming down again as they got destroyed 33-0 by Rutgers. They kept it close against Syracuse, but ended up losing by ten points. As the Big Ten schedule started up, it looked like Illinois was in for their usual winless season after Iowa took them out 24-7. But then they shocked the world when they managed to pull off an upset against Michigan State. Ok, maybe they just shocked anyone wearing green in East Lansing. The Fighting Illini come into Happy Valley this weekend riding a two game losing streak, but those two loses to Indiana and Ohio (not State!) were by a total of five points. They're not happy about the 63-10 pounding the Nittany Lions gave them in Memorial Stadium last year, but they're even more pissed off about the 66-65 BEAT DOWN we put on their basketball team last year.

Offensive Preview

This Juice is tough to squeeze

Illinois started the season riding the arm of senior quarterback Tim Brasic. Realizing that dead horse wasn't taking them anywhere, Ron Zook pulled him and started true freshman Isiah "Juice" Williams in their Big Ten opener against Iowa. His first start was a disappointing 9-of-32 performance led to his first collegiate loss. But Juice's first real introduction to the Big Ten came the following week when he was seen running all over the field in East Lansing en route to a 23-20 victory proving the crown for the most pathetic team in the Big Ten has been passed on. On the year Williams has completed only 43% of his passes for 925 yards, 8 TD, and 5 INT. But what he lacks in consistency he makes up for with big play ability. Seven of his eight touchdown passes have gone for 76, 69, 69, 53, 44, 35 and 31 yards.  And Williams is a dangerous threat to scramble having gained 419 yards on the ground. Williams is one of only five freshmen quarterbacks to start for their respective teams this year.

Senior running back Pierre Thomas anchors a rushing attack that ranks second in the Big Ten averaging 187 yards/game. He's a good size back at 5'10" and 210 lbs, but he's not a very explosive runner. He averages less than half of his team's rushing yards with only 507 on the year for a 71 ypg average. His longest run this year is 44 yards. His best year was really his sophomore year in which he ran for 921 yards. Also seeing some carries is sophopmore Rashard Mendenhall who has 289 yards for a 7.3 ypc average.

Their leading receiver is sophomore Kyle Hudson, who has 31 catches for 469 yards and 1 TD. Standing 5'10" tall and weighing 165 lbs he's a short and quick receiver in the mold of a Deon Butler. The Illini have a bunch of other receivers who will see the field including DaJuan Warren, Jacob Willis, and Jody Ellis. It seems they haven't settled on a clear #2 guy yet, but these guys all step up and contribute to the offense about equally.

The offensive line features some big kids with the smallest being 300 lbs. They have a good mix of youth and experience with 1 sophomore, 2 juniors, and 2 seniors. Like I said, they sport the #2 rush offense in the Big Ten, but Thomas's numbers suggest if you take away the quarterback scrambles and end arounds this team cannot line up and run you over. Their pass protection is good for two or three sacks per game good for last place in the Big Ten.

Defensive Preview

His mom can't spell too good

The defensive line features Josh Norris, Derek Walker, Chris Norwell, and Doug Pilcher. Walker is the class of the group with 5.5 sacks on the year, followed by RS freshman Pilcher. This group has trouble against the run giving up 140 yards per game against some pretty weak competition. They only opponent they have held under 100 yards is Michigan State. Let's just say your rushing defense isn't very good when three of your top four tacklers are defensive backs.

The linebackers feature J Leman and two other guys that use up valuable oxygen for the rest of us. On a side note, I defy anyone to find out Leman's first name. As far as I can tell it's just "J". Every publication I read, his name is listed as "J Leman". Anyway. Leman is by far the best player on the defense. Following in the tradition of great Illinois linebackers, Leman leads the Big Ten in tackles with 78 and is averaging over 11 per game. But then again, if he is so great, why didn't he get nominated for the Butkus Award.

The pass defense is statistically pretty good only giving up 180 yards per game, but that's good enough for 10th place in the Big Ten this year. Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison are the safeties. Alan Ball is the senior leader on the squad playing corner. The other corner is true freshman Vontae Davis. (sniff sniff) Anyone else smell that? Smells like burnt toast.

Special Teams

The Fighting Illini don't fight much on special teams. In the Big Ten they are dead last in net punting (28 yards), 9th in punt returns (5 yards), and 7th in kickoff returns (18 yards). Their kicker is 6-of-9 in field goals with a long of 41.

When Illinois Has the Ball

Turnovers Make Zook Angry

You're going to see some pretty wild stuff. The passing game will feature some pretty sloppy throws from Juice mixed in with an occasional where-the-hell-did-that-come-from throw. Expect to see a lot of tucking and running and frustration as Poz, Connor and Lee are chasing him around all day. The straight up running game shouldn't be much of a challenge to stop as Thomas is pretty average and I suspect their linemen are fat and slow. We should be able to easily contain the running game with the front seven.

I like the way our corners match up with the wide receivers, so I don't expect too many big plays given up. I'm not sure how much pressure we'll get on the quarterback in this game. Stats suggest they give up a lot of sacks, so blitzing may not be necessary. But the linemen are going to have to stay at home to keep Williams in the pocket. Their biggest weapon is his legs. On third and medium to long situations we should see Poz or Lee shadowing Juice to prevent a first down scramble.

Also expect to see some trickeration as I notice some of their wide receivers have rushing and passing yards and touchdowns. If they get frustrated playing us straight up we'll start seeing reverses and flee flickers galore.

Surprisingly, this offense is extremely efficient in the redzone. In 15 trips they have scored 14 times with 9 touchdowns. Easily the best in the conference. One good thing about this Illinois offense is their wild play leads to turnovers as they are dead last in the conference in turnover margin.

When Penn State Has the Ball

We didn't change anything for Michigan, we aren't going to change anything for Illinois. Hunt up the middle. 5-15 yard out patterns to Butler and Norwood. Bubble screens and end arounds to Williams. Mix in the occasional deep throw to keep the safeties back. The only question will be who lines up under center. Unfortunately we probably will not know until gametime.

Regardless, I look for Penn State to move the ball well. They should have no trouble running the ball on this team. It should be another 25 carry 140 yard workhorse day for Tony Hunt. We should be effective in spreading them out and trying some new things in the passing game, provided Morelli is playing. If Cianciolo or Suhey are in the game it's a different story. Then I look for a lot of screen passing and end arounds.

Predictions

Assuming Morelli plays
Butler gets over 100 yards receiving including two catches over 40 yards.
Penn State gains over 400 yards of total offense. 200 on the ground.
Illinois is held to 250 yards total offense and under 100 yards rushing.
Illinois commits 3 turnovers
Kevin Kelly makes a field goal over 45 yards. I'm really going out on a limb on that one.

Final Score

Illinois 10
Penn State 45