The Illinois football team is riding a two game winning streak and a wave of optimism into its visit to Michigan Saturday. The Wolverines have lost their last three games, have suffered numerous injuries and have a disgruntled fandom. But it would be a misnomer to conclude it will be an easy win for the Illini.
Despite all their problems, UM still has a potent offensive attack led by sophomore quarterback sensation Denard Robinson. If the Illini get a big early lead, Robinson may have difficulty leading a comeback. But if he is allowed to play his own game, few teams can hold him down.
Robinson is second in the nation in rushing. Illini coach Ron Zook utilized his science background when describing Robinson's running style.
"He is like water; he is going to seek the path of least resistance."
Translating for football fans, Zook continued: "He's got close to world-class speed and we can't catch him with a relay team. If we could use 12 or 13 guys, I'd probably feel a little bit better, but other than that...
"He's a guy that every time he touches the ball, it kind of takes your breath. So it is going to be a great, great challenge for our defense. I'm watching the kicking game stuff and it's in the third quarter and they've got 480 yards on Iowa, and I'm thinking, `Wow.' That's not a real good way to start off your Monday morning. We'll need everybody."
Zook says only Michigan and Kansas State recruited him as a quarterback. Everyone else wanted him as a defensive back. His passing may not have been great in high school, but it is much improved now, especially when defenses focus on stopping his rushes.
"That may be the biggest surprise, is the way he is throwing the football."
Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning describes the enormity of the task.
"He's not just fast, he's also elusive. He seems to run through arm tackles, so he's got to have some good strength. He seems to have matured, and he's throwing the ball extremely well. There's been a lot of drops, or he'd have even more yards. I think we're looking over 2700 yards already.
"It's gonna be a colossal task for us. Once the ball breaks the line of scrimmage, we've struggled in the back end being able to corral guys. That's something we've got to get better at.
"We're gonna have to work as hard as we can on fundamentals. Hopefully our fundamentals will carry us and give us a chance to be successful. There's only so much you can do. We'll try to do some different stuff they haven't seen. We also don't want our guys put in bad situations either.
"Nobody's really stopped them. We'll try to corral him and hopefully prevent him from breaking off the 50, 60, 70 yard plays. Which has been our nemesis, to be honest with you."
Zook says there may be only one way to counter Robinson.
"A lot of people ask, `How do you stop them?' I don't know that you stop them. I think what you try to do is try to keep the ball away from them and keep them over there on the bench. That is one of the things our offense has done pretty good."
Illini players are taking the challenge seriously. They would rather do their talking on the field. Nathan Bussey reminds they are playing an entire offense and not just one player.
"We're not just preparing for Denard Robinson but for the Michigan offense. We're hoping to play hard, play fast, play within the framework of our defense."
Meanwhile, the Illini offense is facing a defense that has given up an average of 440 yards a game. Injuries have been a problem, especially in the secondary where freshmen are playing prominent roles. But their unique defensive scheme and multiple looks has required the Illini to do more film study than usual.
"It's something we're gonna have to pay more attention to this week," Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase says. "Put in more time studying tape. They do have a lot of different fronts, a lot of different coverages. They blitz from a lot of different areas. We have to be ready for that. It's definitely a totally different defense than we've seen all year."
Offensive tackle Jeff Allen agrees the Illini need to maintain possession of the football and score frequently Saturday.
"That's definitely the best thing to do. All I hear about is their quarterback. I know it'll be great if we can keep the ball out of his hands. He's a great playmaker, so if we can do our part by doing that, we've got a great chance in the game."
Receiver A.J. Jenkins believes the Illini can put up big points on the UM defense.
"Definitely. Honestly, we have so much confidence in our defense. They've been playing great so far, and I can't see them stopping now. But we're gonna go up there and show our offense can compete with an offense like Michigan's and put up as many points as needed."
He realizes he will have to pay close attention to the secondary when running his routes.
"They kind of disguise their defense and play a lot of different coverages. I've got to do a little more reading to recognize the coverages faster. This is the first defense that runs almost everything. Cover 3, cover 2, man and everything in between. Just make the reads on the run."
Michigan's base defense is a 3-3-5. It relies on speed at all positions to fly to the ball, but it may allow the Illini more openings for their running game. Their nose guard Nick Martin, assuming he is healthy after an ankle injury, is outstanding according to Zook.
"Their defense is something a little different than what you are used to seeing in the three-three. Their nose tackle is as good as anyone we have seen. I know we say that every week, but everyone has got one of those guys. Just an awfully, awfully good player."
The Illini also must overcome the Michigan mystique. They haven't played like typical Wolverine powerhouses under Rich Rodriguez, but there is an air of superiority that can overwhelm the unprepared. Scheelhaase was asked if it was still Michigan despite the losses.
"Yeah, I think so. I think it is to a lot of people. They're still getting the media coverage. They're still looked at as a program with a lot of tradition. It's definitely still Michigan to me. We look forward to playing those guys."
The Illini have played well on the road this season, and Scheelhaase believes he knows why.
"I think going on the road presents a bigger challenge. You're not just facing the 11 guys across the ball, you're facing their crowd. It gets you excited. I think a lot of guys look forward to that backed-into-the-corner mentality. They really come out fighting.
"Even in the road games we've lost, we've played hard throughout the game. If we play hard and execute the way we can, we have a chance of getting another road victory. Obviously, it's gonna be a tough task. They're gonna be hungry for this game as much as we are.
Scheelhaase appears to be legitimately uplifted to play in stadiums like Michigan's Big House. He looks forward to playing before 113,000 fans.
"It's definitely exciting. Anytime you get a chance to play in front of that many people, it gets your heart racing. It's something you'll look back later in life and say, 'Wow, I got to play in a venue like that.' It's not something everybody gets an opportunity to do. We're looking forward to it. It should be fun."
Zook says his team is in as good a shape for the game as anyone could possibly hope.
"We are healthy and excited about going up there. Now we have to keep doing the same things we have been in the last few weeks."