The Illinois football team has allowed momentum from a winning season and bowl victory to propel it through winter, spring and summer. Confidence continues to build for the 2011 season. Head coach Ron Zook is looking forward to Saturday.
"It's exciting. The first game is here. The last time we put on the uniforms, we played pretty well. The very first meeting we had when we came back here in January, they sat down and put some things in front of themselves on what they want to accomplish. They've done everything we've asked them to do.
"Coaches are excited about seeing where we are. Unlike last year, where you had a new offense and new defense, a new quarterback and six new coaches, it's been very smooth. We've had a great off season, and these guys are excited to go."
Arkansas State is no pushover. Its wide open spread attack is both potent and experienced, and quarterback Ryan Apling will be a difficult test for the Illini defense according to Zook.
"We've got a good football team coming in here. If you don't believe me, just ask Indiana. They only lost by two. Two years ago, they played Iowa to a three point game, and all Iowa did was win the Orange Bowl. They put up 28 points on Auburn, the national champions last year.
"You've got a bunch of guys coming in here who know how to throw the football. They've got three of their top four receivers back. They have a quarterback back who's very impressive, a guy we looked at from Tampa, Florida. The whole running game is back."
Outside linebacker coach Ron West provides insight on the Red Wolf game plan.
"Arkansas State spreads you, and they use formations to try to outflank you and to put you in positions where you can be vulnerable. You have to be real focused, you've got to know what you're doing, you've got to know where you're supposed to fit, you've got to be able to play the bubble screens on the perimeter plus be able to help out on the run. You've got to really understand the game.
"They've got a good quarterback, a guy that knows how to win for them. He's a good player. They've had to replace their offensive line, but most of their receivers are returning.
"As far as the formations and what they do, it's a very good offense. They'll run the ball and throw bubbles on the perimeter. If everybody expects the run, all of a sudden they'll throw a bubble screen out there."
The Bandit and SAM positions may be key to slowing down the ASU offense.
"The biggest thing for the outside backers is mixing it up, if we drop the Bandit into coverage, or if we use him more as an edge rusher. We'll mix the SAM up the same way. We'll bring him some, and we'll use him in coverage. It's probably a similar game to our bowl game."
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning knows it will be a stern test for his rebuilt defense.
"We're anticipating them coming in and doing some different stuff, so we'll have to adjust when we get there. Different pass routes, different concepts, different running plays. They've shown like 30-40 formations one time, so to quote one of my buddies that coaches at Troy, he thinks they're drawing stuff up on the dirt.
"I think we're blessed with what Coach (Paul) Petrino does. He shows us a lot of formations, and that helps us get prepared for different stuff. And we're blessed to have a little extra time to prepare for them. We hope the extra work will show."
Koenning's defense is designed to counter spread offenses like Arkansas State possesses. Doesn't that give Illinois an advantage?
"In theory. What the spread does, it forces guys to make tackles in space. I've heard it called 'Grass Basketball.' You've got to have athletic guys in space to make tackles.
"We don't have the big linebackers, the big SAM linebacker. But there's less teams in the country that have that right now. We'll see if we can tackle space. We work awful hard at it.
"We hope we can mix it up. You can't always be always. Some of the teams that had success last year were teams that were able to cover in the secondary.
"They went right down the field the first two drives against Auburn. Actually, the first three drives. They turned one over, and the next two drives they were able to score. They looked pretty salty against the #1 team in the country. Auburn decided to go after them.
"I don't know if that's our personality, but we'll have to mix stuff up. We're gonna have to give them different looks without confusing ourselves."
Defensive end Whitney Mercilus says the Illini must remain focused and stable in approach.
"Arkansas State likes to use a lot of trickery plays. They throw things that are unexpected. Our concentration this week is to read our keys."
Quick-release passes on short routes counter a strong pass rush. Is it frustrating to play a team like that?
"Yeah, it can be at times, especially with full protection when the back comes up and tries to block the end. Sometimes it gets confusing, especially if you're trying to run a game or something like that. It gets frustrating at times because everything gets muddled up in the middle. But we expect to overcome that."
Middle linebacker Ian Thomas is ready for everything.
"They do a lot of wing-t, so they try to confuse you with the backfield. I will be looking for the running game. But we've got a speed package ready for them for the pass also. So we're gonna be ready for both."
The Illini have lost their last four openers. It would be nice to start off a season on a winning note. Thomas expects victory.
"Definitely. Get our season going on the right foot. Confidence is a big thing. We plan on dominating this game. We're not underestimating anyone, but we want to dominate throughout the whole game."
Preseason magazines have given the Illini little chance this season. Thomas says he and his teammates want to prove them wrong.
"It's like fuel to the fire. I like to be the underdog. It makes us want it even more. It makes us more hungry. I know the guys on the defense, and we're better this year than last because we know the defense better. We're gonna be real sharp this year."
One UI defender who is especially eager to start the season is cornerback Terry Hawthorne. This is his first opener in three where he has been healthy and ready to go. He wanted badly to play Missouri the last two seasons. He wants to make up for lost time now.
"I didn't get to play much in the Missouri games because of my injuries. To come out and face and offense something similar to Missouri, I think it will be a pretty good deal. Defense has got to come out and focus on our keys."
The best defense is a good offense. If the Illini can control the ball on offense and keep the ASU offense off the field, the defense can rest more between possessions. The Illini offense is eager to prove itself.
"We've been practicing hard," offensive coordinator Paul Petrino reports. "Now it's time to turn the lights on and see who's gonna get it done when it's game time. It's time to go out and perform.
"We're excited we have four good backs, and we expect them all to play well. We have a plan, but sometimes that can vary on who's hot. If someone's playing good, that plan can vary a little bit.
"We're always gonna run the ball to win. Obviously, we also want to execute our passing game. And then get the lead and in the fourth quarter, smash it down their throats. That's what you want to do as an offense."
Arkansas State has a new defensive coordinator in Dave Wommack. While Petrino has been studying Red Wolf film for personnel, he has studied Georgia Tech film to learn more about Wommack's defensive philosophy.
"We know quite a bit about what he did there. And I worked with him at Southern Miss. We know what he did there. He's always been a good coach.
"Sometimes, you want to open the season against a team with a good coach because at least they have a plan. If you go against a team that's grab-bag and crazy, it's harder because they run so many goofy things.
"They're well coached, and so far we know pretty well what they are gonna do. It just comes down to who is gonna execute the best."
"Ford's in great shape, he's been playing real hard. Their linebackers probably haven't seen a whole lot of downhill iso plays, so early in the game it will be good to have Prosch line up and bang them to see if they're gonna play."
Zook respects ASU's defensive personnel.
"They've got three defensive linemen that are all pretty sound. Their linebacker was all-conference last year. They're gonna come in here ready to play. Our team understands that. They know that we've got to be ready to go."
Illini tackle Jeff Allen expects a continuing battle with the Arkansas State defensive line.
"They have some pretty athletic guys at defensive end. And they have one defensive tackle that's pretty good."
Quarterback coach Jeff Brohm shares Wommack's tendencies.
"We're looking at a lot of schemes the coordinator has run previously. He does a good job of teaching fundamentals and techniques. They're very sound, and we're gonna have to execute to win.
"I think he does a good job of playing coverage, not giving up plays, mixing up people to try to get to the quarterback. Everything he does is sound. There's not a lot of crazy things that we have to deal with. They try to keep the ball in front of them, prevent big plays and make you drive it down the field.
"It's a mixture of 4-3 and a little three down linemen stuff, a little bit of hybrid stuff where you stand up defensive ends. It's somewhat like our defense.
"They play mostly zone. They mix in a little bit of man. They'll come after the quarterback in some cover zero blitzes. We've studied it all summer, and I think we're ready. We just have to execute to win."
Allen and the Illini have been confident prior to previous openers, and they ended up losing those games. He believes everyone is focused solely on Arkansas State.
"That's a big thing. We prepared all summer and fall camp. The last thing we want to do is start the season with a loss. We want to come out and get a win.
"We're not looking past anybody, no matter what kind of players they have. The biggest thing we do is focus on ourselves, and we prepare for every team the same. We come with the same intensity whether it's a big-time school or a small school."
Pregame ticket sales are disappointing to say the least. A combination of Labor Day weekend, poor economic conditions and a wait-and-see attitude have all conspired to keep attendance low. Zook reminds people of what they will miss for not attending.
"We're gonna put on an exciting show. I'm looking forward to it. The team coming in here is an exciting team. I think we've got a chance to be a pretty good football team. The last time we put on a uniform, we were pretty good.
"Anytime you play at home, it's an event."