Illinois started the season last week with a 42-34 win over in-state opponent Southern Illinois. This was a good way to start the 2013 campaign as last year's team only had 2 wins and an 0-8 mark in conference play. Head coach Tim Beckman enters his second year at Illinois and is looking to get the Fighting Illini back to winning football games. Their is no doubt this team is improved from a year ago and will look to get a win at home against the Bearcats on Saturday.
Offensive Strength: QB Scheelhaase Leads The Charge
The Illinois offense last year was anything but impressive. They ranked last in the nation with only four passing plays over 30 yards. However, after week 1 they have already surpassed that mark and are doing it with senior quarterback Nick Scheelhasse.
Under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, Scheelhasse threw for a career-high 416 yards passing and two touchdowns in the win against Southern Illinois and seems to have a much better command of the offense.
His top target was fellow senior Ryan Lankford, who caught 6 passes for 115 yards and a score. The Bearcats will have to take away the big play threat of Scheelhaase and Lankford in order to shut down the new and improved Illini offense.
Offensive Weakness: Bread And Butter Is Not The Rushing Game
Although the passing game was effective last week, Illinois struggles running the football. They ran the ball with not much success against Southern Illinois only managing 49 yards on the ground. The defensive line for Cincinnati should be able to stop the run and force the Illini to convert in long yardage situations.
Scheelhasse and company have big play ability but if UC's defense can disrupt the senior quarterback's rhythm they will struggle with a less than impressive rushing attack.
Defensive Strength: Linebacker Core Strong The top performer for the Illini on defense is senior linebacker Jonathon Brown. He was a top linebacker in 2012 and impressed enough to become a semifinalist for the best linebacker in the country. Brown led the team with nine tackles on Saturday and his leadership is vital to a defense with young talent.
Fellow linebacker Mason Monheim is a big part of that young talent. He has a world of potential and has a chance to be even better than Brown before his days are done in Champaign. The sophomore was a 2012 Freshman All-American last season and was second to Brown on the team with 8 tackles last week.
If the Bearcats are going to be successful against the Illini defense the offensive line will have to perform. They will need to do a good job of picking up blitz packages in order to create holes for the running game along with protecting the quarterback.
Defensive Weakness: Pass Defense Non-Existence
Not taking anything away from Southern Illinois, but their definitely a basketball school before a football school. However, the Salukis managed 341 yards in the air and 34 points against the Illinois defense. This is certainly an area where the Illini struggled on Saturday as the defensive backs are a extremely young.
With a junior, two sophomores, and a freshman in the starting lineup, The Illini will continue to struggle against the pass as the young secondary players are learning on the fly. The inexperience will be difficult for them to overcome and this should allow for breakdowns in coverage. If the offense executes, Cincinnati should have no problem throwing the football against an unproven Illinois secondary. This weakness on defense could be the difference in the game.
This is an intriguing matchup for the Bearcats as they look to go 2-0 against Big Ten opponents this season. UC has always had a chip on its shoulder and this seems to carry that same attitude. If the Bearcats pressure the quarterback and take advantage of a young secondary, 2-0 to start the season will become a reality.