Illinois preview

A team's true character is often tested on the road and there will be much we can learn from the Sun Devils this weekend. The maroon and gold embark on their first game this season away from the friendly confines of Tempe and visit Illinois on Saturday. What can we really expect from this Big-10 squad? Devils Digest's Joe Healey provides us a look at the Fighting Illini football team.

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

Head Coach: Ron Zook (10th year/6th at Illinois; 53-59 overall/30-45 at Illinois)

Conference: Big Ten (Leaders division)

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

Honors Candidates: OL Jeff Allen, Sr.; K Derek Dimke, Sr.; FS/LB 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

2011 Schedule

9/3/11 Arkansas State (W, 33-15)

9/10/11 South Dakota State* (W, 56-3)

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

Offense Preview

Though the season is only two weeks old, but at least at this point few Illinois fans are aching because of the early departure of record-setting running back Mikel Leshoure. Last year, the Illini had one of the nation's premier rushing attacks and haven't faltered through the early stages of 2011, averaging 283.0 yards with eight rushing touchdowns.

Perhaps most impressive about Illinois' first two performances is that, unlike last year, it is not a one-man show—four players on the team have totaled at least 100 rushing yards through two games.

Making Illinois' offense fearsome is sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, a second-year starter that is one of the nation's most underrated dual threats. Thus far, Scheelhaase has been highly efficient as a passer (369 yards, two touchdowns, zero INTs, 71.0% completions) and dangerous as a runner (117 yards, two touchdowns 5.6 avg.). Similar to what ASU saw out of Missouri's James Franklin last week, Illinois' quarterback is as comfortable running as passing—if not more eager to use his feet than his arm.

With Scheelhaase's mobility and the mishaps ASU had last week in containing Franklin, there is no doubt whatsoever that objective number one for the Sun Devil defense is to make sure Scheelhaase is limited as a rusher. Illinois has a multitude of threats, especially on the ground, and the team features a variety of offensive sets, so if Scheelhaase is able to have his way with the Sun Devil defense, ASU may have troubles containing the Illini.

In Leshoure's absence, Illinois has transitioned into more of a "by committee" approach, with bruising 6-foot, 235-pound Jason Ford as the top back with shiftier 5-foot-8, 190-pound Troy Pollard not far behind him in the pecking order. Through two games, Ford owns 134 rushing yards on 33 carries (4.1 avg.) with three touchdowns, while Pollard has eye-popping numbers of 124 yards on only 10 carries (12.4 avg.) with one score.

Freshman Donovonn Young is the team's third back that has seen ample action early in his collegiate career, posting a solid 104 yards on 13 carries (8.0 avg.) with two scores.

Collectively, Illinois' running game has the potential to give ASU fits if the Sun Devils show the lack of discipline they did last Friday; Ford can break through sloppy arm tackles, Pollard can dart around those that over-pursue and Scheelhaase can capitalize on defenders that are unable to contain him in a focused fashion.

The Illini running game is aided by the efforts of sophomore fullback Jay Prosch, highly acclaimed for being a workout warrior. One can expect a few enjoyable clashes between Prosch and Sun Devil linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

At wide receiver, senior A.J. Jenkins is the clear leader of the group, as he has nearly half of the team's total receptions through two games with 16 catches for 219 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore Darius Millines is the most accomplished deep threat so far with a 19.6-yard average on eight receptions with one touchdown. Sophomore Ryan Lankford has hauled in a pair of passes on the year while sophomore Spencer Harris, listed as a first-stringer this week, has one reception to his credit in 2011.

Sophomore starting tight end Evan Wilson caught an eight-yard touchdown last week with Jon Davis, the only four-star signee in Illinois 2011 class, as his top backup.

Led by senior tackle Jeff Allen and junior center Graham Pocic, Illinois' offensive line also starts junior guard Hugh Thornton, senior guard Jack Cornell and redshirt freshman tackle Michael Heitz. Allen and Pocic were all-conference honorees last year, while Cornell and Thornton also brought previous starting experience into the 2011 season.

Though the line has substantial starting experience, the unit has allowed 12.0 TFLs and five sacks in two games, though with the heavy emphasis on team rushing—and having a run-friendly quarterback—may make those numbers misleading.

Illinois Offense in a Nutshell

In keeping with the theme of the Missouri comparisons, Illinois presents more of a challenge in the run game, yet less of a challenge in the pass game. ASU's front seven will be frequently tested by Scheelhaase and other Illini runners, and if the Sun Devil response is a sloppy, undisciplined one, Illinois won't stop running until the final whistle.

Though the heavy emphasis of course will be for Illinois to run as much as possible, they have capable receiving targets, especially Jenkins, so the Devils will have to practice defensive honesty as to not simply hand passing lanes to Scheelhaase.

Defense Preview

Though the competition hasn't been stiff in Illinois' first two games, the Illini defense has still fared very well and also shown significant continuity as 10 of the 11 positions have seen the same starter in both weeks thus far.

Up front, Illinois is led by standout sophomore tackle Akeem Spence, a Freshman All-American a year ago that is on the Nagurski and Outland watch lists that has racked up six tackles and one TFL.

Junior "Bandit" Michael Buchanan brings capability as a pass rusher to the Illini defense. After posting 5.5 TFLs and 2.0 sacks last year, he has six tackles and one sack so far in 2011. Junior Justin Staples also sees action at the position and he and Buchanan have split starting duties the first two games.

Tackle Glenn Foster and end Whitney Mercilus, both juniors, are full-time starters for the first times in their careers and thus far have combined for four tackles, two TFLs and one sack.

Senior Ian Thomas is one of the team's most accomplished returning starters, having totaled nine tackles and two TFLs so far at middle linebacker, while senior Trulon Henry moved from the secondary to strong side linebacker this offseason and has collected team-highs of 13 tackles and two interceptions. Sophomore weak side linebacker Jonathan Brown completes the starting trio and has accumulated eight tackles and one TFL in 2011.

Collectively, Illinois has yielded only 85 total rushing yards in two games.

In the secondary, senior Tavon Wilson and junior Terry Hawthorne are spotted as the top cornerbacks, with junior Justin Green as the third option. The trio has combined for 20 tackles, but only one pass breakup and no interceptions so far.

After missing 2010 due to injury, junior Supo Sanni returns as the team's starting free safety with sophomore Steve Hull joins him as the strong safety. Through two games, Sanni has eight tackles and one interception, while Hull has notched six tackles.

Though the sample is small, one mild area of intrigue is that Illinois allowed 290 passing yards to Arkansas State in week one, a Sun Belt Conference team that rated 46th in the country in passing in 2010.

As a whole, the defense has been aggressive and also opportunistic, ranking 10th in the nation with a turnover margin of +2.

Illinois Defense in a Nutshell

Due to the level of competition in the first two weeks of the season, Illinois defense as a whole has some exaggerated national rankings that may not be too indicative of the team's true abilities: sixth in rushing defense (42.5 ypg) and 13th in both total defense (223.0 ypg) and scoring defense (9.0 ppg).

Though the team statistics and rankings may be a bit inflated, the team still possesses individual and collective talent. However, there appear to be areas that ASU can exploit in the pass game, which certainly is right up the Sun Devils' alley.

Special Teams Preview

Senior Derek Dimke, one of the nation's better kickers, has connected on both field goal attempts so far—19 and 32 yards—while also hitting all 11 PATs.

Freshman punter Justin DuVernois averages 36.6 yards on his five punts, while Illinois' return stats are mild to say the least; Ryan Lankford only boasts a 3.2-yard average on six punt returns and both Troy Pollard and Darius Millines have 17.0-yard averages on two kickoff returns each.


The moral of the story here seems fairly simple—the Devils know what they have to do in order to have an excellent chance at victory, but it seems easier said than done. There is no reason to believe that ASU is incapable of playing excellent defensive football, but fans are well aware that this team can fall into traps of unfocused play at virtually any time.

This game is a highly viable test for the Sun Devils to remain in the national rankings and validate lofty preseason expectations; Illinois will force ASU to make adjustments and show discipline on the road. If the Devils can do that, a win is certainly there for the taking. Again, perhaps easier said than done.

In the preseason, this matchup did not seem to present as substantial of a challenge as it does now that the contest is actually here; Illinois has recovered from the loss of offensive and defensive talent much better than expected and, at least in last week's game, ASU showed defensive deficiencies that can be advantageous to the Illini offense.

Keys to an ASU Victory

Play Disciplined Football

With all the athleticism and raw talent that ASU has on defense, the outcome will repeatedly be subpar if the team lacks focus and discipline. If the Sun Devils repeatedly miss tackle—Twenty. Eight. To be exact—as they did against Missouri, Illinois has plenty of weapons to make ASU pay. There is absolutely no doubt that the team has the talent to be a sensational defense, but the focus certainly needs to improve.

In addition to the defensive discipline, it is crucial that ASU avoid a double-digit penalty game, while the Devils can ill-afford to have special teams miscues such as muffed punt returns, shanked kicks and errant extra points.

Establish a Ground Presence In watching film of ASU's effort versus Missouri, Illinois likely is making a concerted effort to not let Brock Osweiler have a standout day at quarterback for ASU. Though Brock has shown the ability to stand tall in the face of pressure, it would be to ASU's substantial benefit for a balanced offensive attack to surface, keeping Illinois on its heels defensively.

Treat This as One Game

Missouri—bad and good—is in the past. The team can't be riding on the high of a hotly-contested win, but it also can't dwell on problematic issues that nearly cost the team a victory. If ASU plays like it is capable of playing, the Sun Devils hold a strict advantage over the Illini; however, even in the emotional win last week, ASU did not play anywhere near its true potential.

Also, with USC on the horizon in ASU's Pac-12 opener next week, the Devils can't afford to have any focus distracted to the Trojans. ASU has to avoid focusing on any peripheral factors outside of the field on Saturday; the only matter at hand is playing sound, successful football against Illinois.

Injury Report and Lineup Notes

• Offensive lineman Aderious Simmons is expected to miss his second straight game, but may return next week for USC.

• Wide receiver J.J. Holliday has returned to practice but is uncertain as far his availability for Saturday.

• True freshman Mo Latu practiced this with the second team and will travel with the team. He could see some playing time on Saturday.

• Defensive end Davon Coleman was limited due to a minor injury this week but should be in the lineup Saturday.

• Defensive lineman Joita Te'i will not play Saturday but could return to practice next week.

• Defensive tackle Corey Adams saw practice reps with the first-team this week, as did safety Keelan Johnson. Both could get game day snaps with that group.

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