Opponent Outlook: Illinois

In the weeks leading up towards the start of fall camp, Devils Digest's Joe Healey will provide an off-season preview of ASU's 2011 opponents. The third article in this series examines the University of Illinois.

Illinois Fighting Illini

Game Date (Kickoff Time/TV): Saturday, Sept. 17th (4:00 p.m./Big Ten Network)

Head Coach: Ron Zook (10th year/6th at Illinois; 51-59 overall/28-45 at Illinois)

Conference: Big Ten (Leaders division)

2010 Record: 7-6 overall/4-4 Big Ten (4th)

Honors Candidates: WR Jeff Allen, Sr.; K Derek Dimke, Sr.; FS Trulon Henry, Sr.; C Graham Pocic, Jr.; QB Nathan Scheelhaase, So.

Key Departures: LB Nate Bussey, WR Jarred Fayson, RB Mikel Leshoure, DT Corey Liuget, LB Martez Wilson

Impact Newcomers: LB Houston Bates, RS-Fr.; TE Jon Davis, Fr.; S Zeph Grimes, Fr.; LB Earnest Thomas, RS-Fr.; DT Clint Tucker, Fr.

2011 Schedule

9/3/11 Arkansas State

9/10/11 South Dakota State*

9/17/11 Arizona State

9/24/11 Western Michigan

10/1/11 Northwestern

10/8/11 at Indiana

10/15/11 Ohio State

10/22/11 at Purdue

10/29/11 at Penn State

11/5/11 BYE

11/12/11 Michigan

11/19/11 Wisconsin

11/26/11 at Minnesota

*-Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) member team

2010 Results (2010 Record/Head-to-Head Score)

Missouri^ (10-3) (L, 23-13)

Southern Illinois* (5-6) (W, 35-3)

Northern Illinois (11-3) (W, 28-22)

#2 Ohio State (12-1) (L, 24-13)

at Penn State (7-6) (W, 33-13)

at #13 Michigan State (11-2) (L, 26-6)

Indiana (5-7) (W, 43-13)

Purdue (4-8) (W, 44-10)

at Michigan (7-6) (L, 67-65 3OT)

Minnesota (3-9) (L, 38-34)

at Northwestern# (7-6) (W, 48-27)

at Fresno State (8-5) (L, 25-23)

Baylor$ (7-6) (W, 38-14)

^-Game played at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Mo.

*-Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) member team

#-Game played at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Ill.

$-Texas Bowl at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas

Team Analysis

In 2010, Illinois was one of the post potent rushing teams in the country, ranking 11th in the nation with an average of 246.1 rushing yards per game. However, now that Mikel Leshoure, who accounted for nearly 1,700 of Illinois' 3,199 rushing yards last year, has moved on to the pros, perhaps the greatest challenge for Illinois will be to find greater offensive balance.

Last year, the Illini had the poorest passing offense in the Big Ten and one of the nation's worst last year, ranking 111th of 120 teams with a paltry average of 151.0 passing yards per game and though they return a striking quarterback and a few proven skill position players, many offensive question marks still exist.

In Nathan Scheelhaase, ASU faces perhaps the most athletically gifted quarterback that the Sun Devils will confront all season, as he rated second in the Big Ten behind Heisman candidate Denard Robinson of Michigan in rushing yards by a quarterback with 868 last season.

Scheelhaase rushed for over 100 yards on four occasions, while submitting a solid redshirt freshman effort with 1,825 passing yards with 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions, as well as a completion rate of 58.7 percent.

With Scheelhaase entering his sophomore season, he may be hard-pressed to duplicate his exemplary freshman statistics now that teams have additional film on him as well as Illinois suffering the early departure of Leshoure. In essence, much more responsibility will be placed on Scheelhasse's shoulders in 2011.

With Leshoure's departure, senior Jason Ford likely steps into the spotlight after serving as a part time starter during his first three seasons. A large back at 235-pounds, Ford has totaled 1,362 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns on 277 career carries which also catching 27 passes for 259 yards in 36 games with 14 starts. Though Leshoure's dynamic skills will certainly be missed, Ford provides a veteran presence to help Illinois' rushing game remain strong.

Senior Troy Pollard (24 carries, 109 yards) and sophomore Bud Golden (8-32) saw action as reserves in 2010 and figure to battle for roles this season.

Senior Zach Becker is the only fullback listed on the roster and has appeared in 26 games over three seasons.

Leading receiver A.J. Jenkins returns as Scheelhaase's key target for 2011 after catching 56 passes for 746 yards and seven touchdowns in 2010, ranking him in the top-10 in the Big Ten in all three categories. Though Jenkins is a proven commodity, there is very little proven talent at wide receiver and multiple youngsters will be called upon to take on significant roles in 2011.

Senior Fred Sykes ranks second on the team among returning wide receivers with only seven receptions for 52 yards in 2010, while sophomores Ryan Lankford (6-129-1) and Spencer Harris (4-48-1) contributed as true freshmen a year ago.

Anthony Williams, a 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman, was a two-star prospect in 2010 and will compete for time at receiver. Three-star signees Dondi Kirby and Kenny Knight and two-star prospects Jordan Frysinger and Jeremy Whitlow will join the team for fall camp.

Though there is a sizeable gap in wide receiver productivity, Illinois seems features a bit more talent at tight end, as Evan Wilson returns after starting 11 games as a true freshman and hauling in 10 catches for 135 yards and two scores.

Justin Lattimore also saw time as a redshirt freshman in 2010, and Illinois' highest-rated prospect in the 2011 class, Jon Davis, was rated a four-star prospect by Scout.com and the No. 7 tight end recruit in the country.

Three of Illinois' final starting five offensive linemen return in weak side tackle Jeff Allen, weak side guard Hugh Thornton and center Graham Pocic. Allen and Pocic are talented blockers and are among the Big Ten's better linemen.

Defensively, Illinois will have to rebound from some significant losses in the front seven including Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey, the team's top two tacklers last season after combining for 195 total stops, as well as first-round NFL Draft selection Corey Liuget, who led the team in tackles-for-loss and sacks in 2010.

Defensive back Travon Bellamy also exhausted his eligibility last season after ranking third on the team with 70 tackles.

Statistically, Illinois'' defense rated 32nd in the nation against the run (130.8 ypg.) and 61st against the pass (220.5 ypg.) to form the country's 38th overall defense (351.3 ypg.) while standing 48th in scoring defense (23.4 ppg.). Illinois was opportunistic as well on defense in 2010, ranking 26th in the country with 27 forced turnovers, while also totaling 23.0 sacks, 76th in the nation.

Up front, sophomore Akeem Spence, a Freshman All-American last year, shifts into a leading role after posting 45 tackles beside Liuget last year.

Junior Michael Buchanan likely will assume the first-string "Bandit" position—a hybrid end/linebacker—after starting eight games last year with 40 tackles, while there will potentially be a battle to replace starting defensive end/Bandit Clay Nurse from last season. Junior Whitney Mercilus brings starting experience to the depth at defensive end, while sophomore Tim Kynard also saw action in 2010.

Ian Thomas, entering his third year as a starter, is Illinois' leading returning tackler from 2010 with 67 stops and is the lone returning first-string linebacker.

The primary candidates to fill the two starting vacancies figure to be sophomore Jonathan Brown (31 tackles in 2010), junior Justin Staples (26 tackles) and sophomore Brandon Denmark (eight tackles).

Houston Bates and Earnest Thomas were both three-star prospects and redshirted in 2010, while incoming true freshman Ralph Cooper was rated the No. 54 middle linebacker in the 2011 class.

In the secondary, Illinois' tandem of starting safeties is a good one, featuring two returning starters that both earned Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors in free safety Trulon Henry (64 tackles, three interceptions) and strong safety Tavon Wilson (48 tackles, one interception). Returning first-string Justin Green (55 tackles) and Terry Hawthorne (28 tackles) likely will start at cornerback.

Steve Hull (19 tackles), Patrick Nixon-Youman (15 tackles, two interceptions) and Ashante Williams (19 tackles) figure to contribute in the secondary, as does Jack Ramsay (four tackles), who has split time between offense and defense during his career at Illinois. Supo Sanni returns to the active roster after missing all of 2010 due to injury.

On special teams, Illinois returns one of the nation's better kickers in Derek Dimke, a Second-Team All-Big Ten selection that converted 24-of-29 attempts in 2010. With punter Anthony Santella having graduated, the Fighting Illini will call upon the services of a first-year collegiate punter.

Expectations

Ultimately, if the Sun Devil defense can frustrate Scheelhaase, Illinois' lack of skill position talent make provoke the Illini quarterback to rely on his athleticism and daringness more than is prudent.

Last season, ASU did a spectacular job in limiting quarterbacks from doing damage outside of the pocket, as the most net rushing yards accumulated by a quarterback in a single game last year was only 18, submitted by Oregon's Darron Thomas and UCLA's Richard Brehaut.

With capable scramblers such as Jake Locker and Andrew Luck being largely limited last year by the Devils, it is apparent that ASU is very reluctant to allow quarterbacks to make much impact on foot. Also, the Sun Devils will have prepared for the previous week's starting quarterback, James Franklin of Missouri, who is also fluently fleet of foot, so ASU's defense will already be predisposed to account for a dual-threat signal-caller.

The matchup of ASU's defense versus Illinois' offense appears to strongly favor the Sun Devils and could prove to be the game's deciding comparison. With few viable offensive targets outside of one solid receiver, if the Devils can limit Scheelhaase, Illinois' options may be few and far between.

For the Sun Devils, momentum plays a major role in this matchup, with the Sun Devils' huge showdown with Missouri coming a week before this trip.

Depending on the outcome of ASU's week two effort, the Devils will face Illinois either on a major roll after taking down an excellent Missouri team or with scary urgency after a loss to the Tigers. The Sun Devils could be either riding the highs of an emotional victory or scaling the lows of a disappointing loss but in either event, emotions cannot be a major factor against Illinois.

With games against Arkansas State and South Dakota State, Illinois won't be nearly as tested as ASU will be by the time week three arrives, but with the game being played in Champaign, the Devils can ill-afford to take the Illini lightly. On paper, ASU owns many clear advantages but when kickoff arrives, the Sun Devils must be entirely business-oriented.

This meeting is incredibly pivotal for ASU's projected success in 2011; whether ASU enters the game with or without a loss on the year, a win is crucial for the Sun Devils to remain a viable candidate for national prestige and regard as a legitimate Pac-12 Conference contender.


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