Illinois has a young team that played well and learned a great deal against Missouri last Saturday. But it needs wins to gain needed confidence and draw fans back to its side after two frustrating seasons. Southern Illinois is a Division II opponent, but it should give the Illini a battle.
Head coach Ron Zook was impressed with the Salukis's 70-7 win over Quincy last week.
"This game is going to be very important. Any time somebody throws 70 points on the scoreboard...it's hard to score 70 points on air. This is a football team that's very dangerous. This is a football team that I think in the last 2 years they've won 20 games. They're right up there with Appalachian State.
"Everyone knows what Appalachian State did in this conference a couple years ago (beating Michigan). (SIU) beat Indiana a couple years ago. They'll throw caution to the wind and play as hard as they can.
"They were picked to win their conference. And the team that was picked sixth in the conference (North Dakota State) beat Kansas on Saturday. They saw what happened to Ole Miss Saturday (losing to Jacksonville State)."
Since Illinois is a high major Division I program, some assume the Illini recruit a higher caliber player. Zook says it doesn't always work that way.
"It depends on the year. There's some guys on Southern's team who I wish we had. But that goes back to how guys mature, and how they are in high school may not be how they are in college. They've done a great job with recruiting.
"Just because we didn't recruit them doesn't mean they can't play here. At that point in time we may not have had a need for that position or we may have already had somebody. Those kinds of things. We recruit against each other.
"There are guys on our football team that would have trouble playing on their team. I don't think there's any question about that. I think they have 3 guys on opening day (NFL) rosters, maybe four. You see guys in the NFL that played on teams you've never heard of. There are guys on our team that would have trouble playing on their team, and I promise you there are guys on their team that could play on our team."
The Dawgs have a new offensive coordinator this year, and his methods are not well known to the Illini coaching staff. Kalen DeBoer was head coach at the University of Sioux Falls before moving to Carbondale. He was a remarkable 67-3 in his tenure with three national championships. His team averaged 52 points a game in 2009, winning its second consecutive national title.
Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning says the Illini have had to search high and wide for information on DeBoer's tendencies.
"We kind of had an idea what to expect with Missouri. With Southern Illinois, we don't have as good an idea. They have a new offensive coordinator that was at Sioux Falls last fall. They were almost impossible to find any film on them.
"They did play one game last week where they scored on just about every possession of the game. I know we'll see everything we saw in that game. They won pretty handily. We're going into it with not as good an idea as we had against Missouri.
"Those people that saw the Boise (State) game against Virginia Tech, I think they're gonna be similar to Boise. You'll see a little bit of everything, quads and trips and motions and shifts, all kinds of misdirection, getting guys out of the backfield into the flats. More of the West Coast type passing game. They also will go downfield and mass protect."
Zook expands on the SIU offense.
"Their skilled people are their veterans: their receivers, their running back, they've got two quarterbacks that they play, they've got 3 of the 5 offensive linemen back. The one thing that's a little bit hard is because of the new offensive coordinator you're not exactly sure what you're going to get."
The Illini have a makeshift defensive backfield due to injuries. This week, they also have a new Bandit after the starter there was suspended. Clay Nurse is moving from defensive end to the hybrid position, while his backup Whitney Mercilus moves up to start.
"Clay's been wanting to be an outside linebacker since he's been here," Zook notes. "He actually played there a little bit this spring and this fall at camp. So there are not a lot of new things going on there. The thing that hurts you a little bit is depth.
"Whitney, I thought, played extremely well on Saturday. We've seen him since camp really begin to improve. We talked about it last Friday night, we had to make sure we got Whitney on the field enough because he's earned that number one-number two spot. He's playing his tail off right now."
Even though the Bandit frequently rushes the passer, Koenning says it is different than Nurse's regular position. He must make sure he doesn't make the defense too complex for all those learning new positions.
"We've got to make sure we don't confuse our guys, yet we want to give them opportunities to be successful. We're walking that tight rope."
Zook reminds that SIU placekicker Kyle Dougherty is a threat also.
"Their field goal kicker I think missed 2 kicks last year. He's getting ready to set the record for the most points. So if they get to the 30-yard line they're capable of kicking field goals. It will be a big, big test for the defense."
The SIU defense has only three starters back, but their aggressive style helps them make up for any lack of experience according to Zook.
"Defensively, there's pressure just about every snap. Some type of pressure, and a lot of it's man pressure. Offensively, we'll have our work cut out for us there.
"In the secondary they've got two guys that are being touted as all-Americans, one of them I believe was an all-American last year. But they're once again guys that are going to come in here ready to play."
Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino knows his group faces a tough test Saturday night.
"They're gonna blitz from when we're walking off the bus until we're in the locker. They're gonna come after us, and we're gonna have to work hard all week and then go out and execute against them."
SIU operates out of a 3-4 defense with four linebackers. Petrino was asked if that alignment will reduce the effectiveness of sprintouts and bootlegs Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase likes to utilize.
"One thing about going against Coach Vic all week in practice, he gives you every defense known to mankind. That's helped. If we hadn't seen all that bunch in spring and fall, we'd probably be a little more worried about it."
Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert realizes the Illini must be careful about the timing of their play calls.
"You've got to be careful what you're doing at times. When you get overhang defenders all the time, that's something you've got to be concerned with when you're running sprintout, bootlegs and that kind of stuff. You've got to be careful about formations and what you can do and what you can't do."
The offensive line was inconsistent last week. Gilbert agrees the SIU defense will provide a stern test for them.
"They do a lot of different things, so it's a challenge this week trying to get ready, both in the running game and protection-wise. They move their fronts, and they blitz and pressure from somewhere with just about every snap. So that gives you a little bit of a challenge."
As a spokesman for the offense, Scheelhaase emphasizes how important it is for the Illini to take SIU seriously.
"If you watch their game against Marshall last year, a Division I team, they came out playing a whole lot harder than Marshall. They really had them reeling for awhile, caused some turnovers early and were able to capitalize on some mistakes. We've just got to make sure we're focused and ready to play because I know they're gonna come out with a lot of fire, a lot of intensity."
It may be necessary for the Illini to establish their running game to keep the SIU offense off the field. It is felt they can break some big plays in the running game if they are patient. Running back Mikel Leshoure is willing to carry the load if needed.
"Hopefully we can pound the ball. Coach Petrino said we need to establish our running game, especially early in the season. So if that means me having another 20 carries, it is what it is. We want to establish the run and come out and play a 60 minute game."
Zook says the Illini must play to their potential to win.
"What we have to do is go play the way we're capable of playing. Period. That's what we've talked about, that's what we talked about last week and we did for two and a half quarters last week."
There is no doubt SIU is hungry to defeat its northern neighbor. They feel ignored in Carbondale, and they would like nothing better than to prove their worth. Zook agrees they will play with a nothing to lose, everything to gain attitude.
"If I was in their shoes I would say the same thing. But I'm going to tell you something. We have everything to gain because (since) we've started doing this, we've kind of made a point.
"If you look at the last play of the game on Saturday we were playing hard. We're going to start right there, I don't care who comes to town. We're going to play as hard as we can play for 60 minutes."