Illinois Preview

Arizona State's performance versus Northern Arizona last week was nothing short of impressive. Yet, some are quick to remind that it was also an FCS opponent which ASU dominated for the entire game. One thing is for sure, that enthusiasm will either be tempered or escalated after the Sun Devils host the University of Illinois tomorrow, the proverbial first true test of the season.

In this preview, DevilsDigest's Joe Healey examines ASU's next opponent and some of the key matchups.

Head Coach

Tim Beckman (22-16 overall, 1-0 at Illinois)

2011 Record

7-6 (Defeated UCLA in Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl)

Last Meeting with ASU

The Sun Devils traveled to Champaign on Sept. 17, 2011 riding the high of a thrilling overtime "Blackout" win over Missouri in Tempe the previous Friday.

However, in what was the most frustrating game during the first half of the season for Sun Devil fans, the momentum came to a halt in Illinois as the Fighting Illini defense consistently assaulted QB Brock Osweiler to the tune of 13 tackles for loss and six sacks.

In the first quarter, ASU matched a one-yard Jason Ford touchdown run with a 21-yard scoring reception by Gerell Robinson. Illinois would end the quarter with a 10-7 lead after a 20-yard Derek Dimke field goal.

After a scoreless third quarter, ASU retook the lead after a 14-yard touchdown run by Osweiler on the first play of the fourth quarter. The Illini responded with a 16-yard scoring pass from Nathan Scheelhaase to A.J. Jenkins to secure the final 17-14 margin of victory.

Illinois was able to take advantage of tremendous field position, as the team's two touchdown drives began at ASU's 38 and 41-yard line, respectively.

Osweiler had a game-high 256 yards as well as 17 net rush yards, but turned the ball over three times. Cameron Marshall had a game-high 69 rushing yards on 13 attempts, but missed some time early in the game due to a brief injury. Gerell Robinson caught eight passes for 88 yards with a touchdown, while Aaron Pflugrad added seven receptions for 75 yards.

For the Illini, Scheelhaase was limited through the air with only 135 passing yards, but the dual-threat had a team-best 67 net rushing yards. Jason Ford added 58 yards on 21 carries with a touchdown.

Eventual first round NFL Draft pick A.J. Jenkins had a game-high 103 receiving yards on six receptions with a score—by far the majority of Illinois' passing productivity as the remaining receivers combined for only five catches and 32 yards.

Offense Preview

The biggest question mark at any spot in this game is the status of Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, a tenured dual threat that suffered an ankle injury last week against Western Michigan. Generally considered to be "questionable" for Saturday's game, the difference in Illinois' offense is substantial when he's not in the lineup, as the third-year starter would give way to sophomore Reilly O'Toole if not in the lineup.

With Illinois' prolific defense, the Illini offense does not need to be spectacular, which works well for the athletic and opportunistic Scheelhaase. Illinois' defense is highly capable of creating short fields for its offense, making the quarterback position all about facilitation and efficiency rather than a "high octane" sort of style.

Last season, Scheelhaase totaled 2,110 passing yards and 624 rushing yards with 19 total touchdowns while completing 63.2% of his passes.

O'Toole appeared in 10 games as a redshirt freshman last season and completed two of his three passing attempts last week against Western Michigan in relief of Scheelhaase.

Against Western Michigan, Illinois featured three key runners in Jon Davis, Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young. Davis, a physical freak at 6-foot-3, 240-pounds, is a tight end by trade but will see action in a variety of ways and led the team with 54 rushing yards on six carries. Ferguson, a smaller back at 5-foot-10, 185-pounds and Young, measuring 6-foot-0, 220-pounds, each had 11 carries against Western Michigan but only combined for 40 yards.

With first-round NFL Draft selection A.J. Jenkins gone from last year, Illinois has a tremendous void at wide receiver. Ryan Lankford hauled in a 64-yard touchdown on his only reception last week, while Spencer Harris had the most catches among Illinois' wide receivers last week (three) but only accounted for 19 yards. Darius Millines caught a nine-yard pass last week bringing the grand total of wide receiver productivity to five catches for 92 yards among.

Freshmen Justin Hardee, Peter Bonahoom and Kenny Knight are listed as the reserves at Illinois' three receiver positions.

In addition to Davis' multi-dimensional value to Illinois, Eddie Viliunas, Evan Wilson and Matt LaCosse are listed on the depth chart but only Viliunas caught a pass against Western Michigan.

Along the offensive line, senior left tackle Hugh Thornton and standout senior center Graham Pocic boast the most experience, with sophomore left guard Michael Heitz, sophomore right tackle Simon Cvijanovic and redshirt freshman right guard Ted Karras are slated to round out the starting offensive line.

Illinois Offense in a Nutshell

Predicting Illinois' offense is challenging without a full grasp of Scheelhaase's availability, but even if the veteran quarterback is in the lineup there are areas of concern. Illinois lacks proven playmakers in the pass game and figures to rely on a stable of rushers to create an impact on the ground.

Even if Scheelhaase is in the lineup, questions will certainly remain about his mobility due to the ankle injury he suffered last week. Regardless, however, ASU will have to account for him on every play. If the Illini opt for O'Toole at quarterback, the threat to run greatly decreases.

With the expectation that Illinois' defense will try to make life as difficult as possible when the Sun Devils have the ball, ASU's defense will have to stand firm throughout the game to give its offense as many fortuitous opportunities as possible.

Illinois has nearly no qualified performers at wide receiver but some competent components in the run game, with Scheelhaase also boasting the capability of personally turning the tide of the offense with his versatile skill set.

Defense Preview

Illinois' pride and joy unmistakably rests in its defense, as a terrorizing front gives the Illini one of the strongest defensive units in the country.

The defensive line features extraordinary experience and talent with two seniors (end Michael Buchanan and tackle Glenn Foster) and two juniors (end Tim Kynard and tackle Akeem Spence) comprise the starting lineup. Senior Justin Staples adds quality depth at defensive end, giving the Illini a dangerous and potentially dominant defensive line.

Buchanan, a high-motor and versatile end, earned Second-Team All-Big Ten honors in 2011 and Spence has definite NFL upside, but the group as a whole is cohesive and capable of creating a great deal of complications for ASU's blocking schemes.

At linebacker, Sun Devil fans surely remember Jonathan Brown's devastating play against ASU a year ago. An eventual Honorable Mention All-Big Ten member in 2011, Brown is slated to start on the weak side with sophomore Houston Bates in the middle.

A pair of freshmen, Mike Svetina and Mason Monheim, are listed as the top reserves behind Brown and Bates.

Similar to ASU's use of a "Spur" hybrid linebacker, Illinois utilizes a "Star" position, manned by senior Ashante Williams whose pick-six sealed the victory last week.

At cornerback, the seasoned senior pair of Justin Green and Terry Hawthorne brings vast experience to the secondary, with Hawthorne as an all-purpose standout that participates on special teams as well.

Illinois features multiple options at the safety positions, with Pat Nixon-Youman and Steve Hull at strong safety and Earnest Thomas as Supo Sanni at strong safety.

Neither Hull nor Sanni played versus Western Michigan but both players are listed as possibilities to start against ASU.

Illinois Defense in a Nutshell

It is possible that ASU won't face a more striking group of defensive linemen and linebackers, as it will against Illinois, highlighted by the potent play of Brown, Buchanan and Spence.

After holding Western Michigan to -6 rush yards the Illini have the top rated run defense in college football after week one, presenting a formidable challenge to ASU's diverse and talented stable of rushers.

The Illini pass defense, however, ranks much lower on the proverbial food chain, though if the preferred starters are in place at safety perhaps the proficiency level will increase.

Much like it did last year against the Devils, Illinois can be expected to attack and put the full court press on Taylor Kelly and his colleagues in the backfield.

The trench battle between the Sun Devil offensive line and the Illinois defensive front will likely be what determines the game's overall advantage, a match-up that generally favors the experienced and accomplished Illini line. However, Saturday will certainly provide a proving ground for ASU's offensive front that features three first-time full-time starters.

Illinois will try its best to rough up and run down Taylor Kelly and ASU's running backs, forcing the sophomore quarterback into snap decisions and potential turnover opportunities.

Special Teams Preview

Sophomores Nick Immekus and Justin DuVernois handle the placekicking and punting duties, respectively. In his collegiate debut last week, Immekus split his two field goal attempts, connecting from 43 yards and missing from 45. DuVernois, reportedly only one of 10 true freshman starting punters in the nation last year, averaged 38.3 yards on 53 punts in 2011.

Tommy Davis and Miles Osei are listed as the top punt returner options with Josh Ferguson, Terry Hawthorne and Donovonn Young as the primary kickoff returners.

Conclusion

The fate of this game figures to rest on how ASU can handle Illinois attacking defense; with a number of deficiencies on offense for the Illini, if the Devils can fend off the opposing defense, ASU can gain a marked advantage in the game.

If the contest boils down to a field position battle, the pendulum can swing toward the Illini—especially if the heady Scheelhaase is in the game and of substantial health.

Turnovers, penalties and other mistakes likely will steer the outcome of the game, with a probable result comparable to last year's 17-14 clash in Champaign.

Keys to a Sun Devil Victory

Man Up

Saturday will be a test for the offensive line—one of the stiffest tests the group will face all year. The Illini front seven is loaded with talent and experience with players such as Spence, Buchanan, Brown and company, and ASU's blockers, a group that includes multiple first-year full-time starters, absolutely must be cohesive and consistent. As impressive as Taylor Kelly was in week one, ASU's quarterback situation is far from comparable to the senior year level of expertise shown by the likes of Andrew Walter, Jake Plummer, Jeff Van Raaphorst and Danny White, so the line needs to minimize Kelly's need to make decisions under duress.

In addition to keeping Kelly upright, Illinois' stern run defense is an obstacle ASU will have to at least respectably clear on Saturday to bring some balance to the Sun Devil offense. Excitement is high for the "Run DMC" trio of Cameron Marshall, Marion Grice and D.J. Foster, and Saturday will pose a much greater proving ground than the group saw last Thursday versus NAU.

Keep Cool, Kelly

This game has incredible potential to test the mental and physical acumen of Taylor Kelly, making his second all-time collegiate start. With the talent of Illinois' front seven, Kelly may be frequently moved around in the pocket and his decision making skills will need to mimic those of a fifth-year senior and not a second-game starter. Kelly will have to decipher when is best to run versus past, when to throw the ball away, when to get out of bounds or slide, when to be smart and when to take chances.

Last year, Brock Osweiler was getting blasted from all angles, which undoubtedly struck some paranoia into his thoughts each snap. With Kelly's lack of experience, he needs to find a comfort zone to go through his progressions and facilitate a steady offensive attack. These motives can be greatly aided by steady protection and a consistent ability to run the ball, but if Illinois is defensively stout against the Devils in those areas Kelly must be able to efficiently think and execute on the run.

Discipline and Focus

Preventing penalties and enhancing ball security are always staples of Todd Graham's teams, and this game is a picture-perfect example of the importance of those qualities. Illinois, as mentioned multiple times, has multiple strengths on defense and if Nathan Scheelhaase is at quarterback all game, the Illini have a seasoned game facilitator under center. The translation of those departments is that ASU can ill-afford to assist Illinois' cause by way of penalties and turnovers.

Last season in Champaign, much of ASU's undoing included self-inflicted wounds as the Devils had red zone drives erased by penalties and sacrificed the ball to turnovers in its own territory on more than one occasion.

If ASU is able to win the turnover and penalty battles Saturday, the chances of victory are high.

Familiar Faces

• Illinois OL Ryan Nowicki attended Glendale (Ariz.) Cactus High School and considered ASU both as a high school recruit and when he transferred from Penn State this summer.

• ASU assistant coaches Chip Long and Ron West were on Ron Zook's staff at Illinois last season.

• ASU TE Darwin Rogers is a Chicago native and signed with Illinois out of Leo Catholic High School.


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