The Illinois defense has spent the week seeking ways of slowing down the high-powered Michigan offense led by superstar quarterback Denard Robinson. There is little likelihood of stopping the multi-dimensional player, but slowing him down is a necessity.
However, the defense is going into the game in good spirits with confidence soaring after a series of games where they have proven themselves one of the top units in the Big 10. They know they have a challenge ahead, but they believe they are ready for it.
Since most believe the Illini offense must outscore Michigan to win, much discussion this week has centered on the offense. Little by little, redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase has evolved into a dangerous signal caller who can put his teammates in the right position to succeed.
Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino praised Scheelhaase's efforts against Purdue.
"By far that was his best game mentally. He made a lot of good checks. They were blitzing a lot, and he got us in good plays a lot.'
Scheelhaase was especially adept at changing line protections prior to the snap to counter Purdue tendencies on the blitz. Offensive tackle Jeff Allen, who was praised for his effort against Boilermaker defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, appreciated his quarterback's abilities.
"Oh yeah, it's a great help. Nathan checking plays and seeing the fronts and coverages, it gives us the best opportunity for us to create big plays. On Saturday Nathan did a great job doing that. He seemed like a seasoned vet out there. I wasn't surprised because he does it all the time in practice. But he showed his growth and development on Saturday."
Scheelhaase was matter-of-fact about it.
"They're a team that probably blitzed more than some of the other teams we've played. It was real important to get into a fix when they were blitzing. With some teams that blitz, your normal runs work against it.
But I think we have gotten better at that as the season has gone on, and it's been a big benefit to our offense. When you're able to stay away from those negative three yard plays and get a four yard gain, that's a difference of seven yards."
Most people would be satisfied if the rookie quarterback simply managed a game without worrying about being a hero. Petrino bristled at the thought of Scheelhaase being a game manager.
"I want him to be a superstar. I don't like that 'manage a game,' I never have. I don't like that statement. I want my quarterback to be a great player. That's just me. I want to go out, play great and win the game."
Scheelhaase at least approached stardom last Saturday, and he was rewarded with the Big 10 Offensive Player Of The Week award. More to the point, Petrino is more confident in him and his teammates now.
"I think so. When he's playing better, it helps me call more based on what he's doing. We're starting to feel better about the other 10 guys and what they can do. Confidence breeds confidence. They start believing in stuff, then everybody starts making plays."
The Illinois offense was more difficult to defend because it was able to mix runs and passes effectively. Petrino knows that is the key to success.
"What that does is it makes people defend both the pass and the run. When we can do that, then we can be a pretty dangerous offense. He did a good job of that last weekend."
Overall, the Illini appear to be as healthy as at any time this season. Everyone not out for the year practiced. Considering how difficult their schedule has been, that is a tremendous advantage. The top 15 players on the team were injured or sick part or all of the 2009 season. It is entirely different this year, and head coach Ron Zook believes he knows at least part of the reason why.
"When the attitude is good, everybody feels good. I really believe this. For example, Mike Buchanan yesterday had his strongest bench (press) that he's had in his life. So we're still getting stronger and better. I think that obviously helps keep them healthy.
"I think, as crazy as this (sounds), it seems like there's less injuries when you're playing wide open. I think that has a lot to do with it as well. There are certain things, I mean ankles and things like that you have no control over. We've been very, very fortunate."
Even mild ankle sprains can set someone back several weeks. He may be able to play on it right away, but he may not have his full range of motion or complete explosiveness that quickly. When you have a stress fracture like Terry Hawthorne, bone healing is just part of the battle. He has played in three games since returning from the injury, but according to Zook, only now is he back to his full athleticism.
"Watching the tape of him catching punts was the first time I felt like, `Hey, you know, he's back. He's looking the ball in, the balls aren't juggling, he's got it.' He's doing the things that you like. This is his fourth game back. He's what I would consider game-ready, 100% ready."
It is difficult to play a rugged 12 game schedule at the major college level. Even without injuries, it is hard to maintain focus and play at a high emotional peak week after week. As good as the 2007 team was, it suffered a complete collapse at Iowa after two exciting home victories.
But according to Allen, the Illini are maintaining the balance and consistency necessary to sustain their effort every week.
"It starts out with the coaches. They instill the values in us, and we do the same things every week whether we win or we lose. It's about being consistent no matter what the situation. Believing in ourselves that we can persevere."
They believe they can beat Michigan for the third year in a row. And they have put in the effort in practice to prepare properly for that possibility.