The Illini needed to build momentum into the Arizona State game, and they did that. Arkansas State will prove to be a quality team this year. They defeated Memphis 47-3 last Saturday, giving credibility to the UI victory. South Dakota State was the type of game teams sometimes take for granted, ending with a close outcome that bothers fans. The fact Illinois dominated from the start was encouraging.
Illinois played a lot of players including 11 true freshmen in the two wins. They demonstrated their diverse offense and team-oriented defense, and that was their primary goal besides winning. The wins prove nothing, but Illini confidence is enhanced as a result.
Nathan Scheelhaase appears to be an athletic quarterback similar to Missouri's James Franklin, who really hurt ASU last week. Can you talk about Scheelhaase' skills and are you encouraged that he can find success against ASU just like Franklin did last week?
Nathan Scheelhaase is the best leader on the team and the hardest worker. He doesn't have a powerful arm, but he is learning to follow his progressions and hit open targets. Combine his passing efficiency with his running ability, and you have a dual threat quarterback who is playing with confidence.
The key for the Illini offense will be mixing run and pass and using all their skill players. If they can keep ASU guessing defensively, they can move the ball. Scheelhaase is not exactly the same player as Franklin.
It appears that the offense's strength is the running game. How does it compare to last year's?
Mikel Leshoure took over the running back duties last year, and he left a year early for the pros. There is no one back with the same combination of skill set and experience.
However, all four backs used are capable and have different skills. Two highly experienced seniors Jason Ford and Troy Pollard share time with two exciting rookies Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson, and fullback Jay Prosch is a powerful lead back for them. Since the UI is passing better this year, the running game may end up being as successful in 2011 as last year.
ASU head coach Dennis Erickson said that the Fighting Illini run multiple formations on offense. Can you expand on that fact and how much of a challenge does it create for opposing defenses?
The Illini offense is extremely complex because it can run the same plays from multiple formations and multiple plays from the same formations. It makes pregame preparation essential.
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to run to win, but he believes in exploiting advantages in the passing game as well and will go after any apparent weakness. And the Illini have more skill players than in recent memory, allowing them to be unpredictable and go to the hot hand.
Can you talk about the Fighting Illini's defense and some of its strengths and weaknesses?
The key to the UI defense is swarming to the ball and playing a team game. There are no superstars, so each player must fill his responsibility well enough the others can trust him. They play with passion, and sometimes that passion is hard to maintain game to game and even different segments of one game. Without passion, they are an average defense.
The secondary may be the strength of the defense. The defensive line lacks experienced depth, and the linebackers are young with one exception. But so far a number of players have shown themselves capable of playing well. The Illini players have a chip on their shoulder to prove the prognosticators wrong.
They must blitz at times to keep pressure on the quarterback. Unlike last year, they believe they have the athleticism to run man-to-man in the secondary when they blitz.
Can you talk about the Fighting Illini's special teams and some of its strengths and weaknesses?
The placekicker is senior Derek Dimke, and Coach Ron Zook believes he is one of the best in the country. The punter is a raw freshman. He has a great leg, but he has been inconsistent so far.
The coverage teams have performed well up to now. It has been so long since anyone has returned a kickoff for punt or for a touchdown, fans don't get their hopes up. But they have athletes who are fast and capable.
What key injuries does Illinois have coming into this week's game?
The Illini have been extremely fortunate with injuries so far. They lost senior tight end/fullback Zach Becker to a broken leg last week, but he missed last year also. Offensive tackle Corey Lewis is still awaiting clearance to resume practice after ACL surgery. But otherwise the team is healthy.
Name a couple of players on each side of the ball (not including Nathan Scheelhaase) that will be key for an Illinois victory?
Receivers A.J. Jenkins and Darius Millines can break a long one at any time. Running backs Jason Ford, Troy Pollard, Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson are all capable of having big games.
Who do you feel will be Illinois's toughest opponent this year and what are the expectations from this year's team?
The Illini truly believe they can play for the Big 10 Championship. Whether that is in the cards, they have 8 home games to help the cause. Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan in the Big 10 will all be tough, as will the Arizona State game. In the Big 10, any team can rise up and beat you, so they are all important.
What do you think is the biggest question mark Illinois has going into Saturday's game?
Can they put enough pressure on Brock Osweiler to prevent big plays? The pass rush is probably the biggest concern entering the game.