Illini Ready To Battle Aggressive Jackrabbits

The Fighting Illini football team has a 1-0 record for the first time in five years, and it is hungry for more. South Dakota State visits Memorial Stadium Saturday with upset in mind. Despite being an FCS team, the Jackrabbits can bite you if you're not careful. The Illini cannot afford to look ahead to their big game next week against Arizona State.

South Dakota State is proud of its football program, and with good reason. They enjoy winning seasons most years, and they play tough, hard-nosed football that maximizes their talent. Illinois coach Ron Zook knows a quality team is visiting Saturday.

"The team coming in here this week is another challenge. They like to throw the ball all over the park. Their quarterback is back, and better. The strength of their football team is probably their offensive and defensive lines."

The Illini offense is disappointed in some of its play last week and plans to make a big improvement this week. To do so, it will need to overcome a highly aggressive defensive style according to offensive coordinator Paul Petrino.

"Probably the best thing they do is, they play hard. They give great second effort, and we've got to match that.

"They played good against Nebraska last year. It was 17-3, and two of Nebraska's scores were on big plays. It makes you realize we've got to come out and play with great effort, understand what our assignments are and not hurt ourselves. If we match their effort, we'll be in good shape."

Center Graham Pocic knows he is in for a solid test Saturday.

"They're a tough team. Defensively, they have a bunch of guys who will fly to the ball. They'll play hard, and they're a bunch of tough kids. It presents a challenge to us to play to the whistle every time.

"Their aggressiveness affects the linemen a lot. They kind of go man-to-man on you and try to outwork you. They're a talented group. They're gonna try to pound us. They blitz a lot from what I've seen. But our coaches have a pretty good game plan for it."

Tackle Jeff Allen respects the Jackrabbit defense for the same reason. He knows the offensive line has to be ready for a variety of blitzes.

"They have a lot of guys up front who give a lot of effort. They don't quit on a play; they keep going after it and are highly motivated.

"We've been working on blitz pickup in practice, being able to pick up the blitz whether it's run or pass. Making the right calls, Nate (Scheelhaase) making the right checks. Just attacking the blitz and not letting it attack us.

"They're gonna come in with a lot of aggression. They want to win, so we have to come with the same intensity."

Allen has experienced a loss to a lower ranked team, and he doesn't want a repeat.

"We're looking forward to this game, going out and showing what we can do. You can never overlook a team. I've lost to smaller schools before, and I don't like that feeling. It's my job and other guys who have been here's job to help guys get prepared. This game is not given to you. You can't let your guard down for anyone."

Scheelhaase is familiar with some of the SDSU players.

"There are some players from my home town (Kansas City), so I'm excited. They're a good team. They played Nebraska pretty tough last year.

"I played against Doug Peete, one of their defensive ends, when I was in Little, Little League. One of their defensive backs played against my high school."

South Dakota State doesn't use the same secondary schemes as what the Illini saw last week, so Petrino says a new game plan is necessary.

"Their schemes are a little different. They use more cover 2. Last week, a lot of our big plays were hitches and fades. But with cover 2, the type of routes and the type of progressions you run are different. At least with what they've shown. You never know if they will come up with something different."

Petrino hopes to use backup quarterbacks Miles Osei and Reilly O'Toole again this week, as well as the rest of the season. But the amount of action they receive will likely vary week to week.

"It's something we'll continue to talk about with Coach Zook, Coach (Jeff) Brohm and myself. We'll have a plan going into each game. It could be a little different each week. We will continue to get them both reps and keep having them make plays. It will take some hits off of Nathan and take some pressure off.

"We did this last year with Eddie (McGee) to give Nathan some breaks. We did it quite a bit with Eddie in some games. It's not much different than what we did with Eddie last year. We're just doing it with those two this year."

The Jackrabbit offense is diverse and balanced between run and pass. Thomas O'Brien completed a high percentage of his throws last week to multiple receivers, and Tyrel Kool rushed for over 100 yards. Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning provides a scouting report.

"I think they've got some tough, physical-looking kids, which I think is the nature of that conference. They have a quality running back and a quarterback that threw for 279 yards last week with 75% accuracy. He's a tall guy who played all last year and got some experience.

"They're an effective team. They've got precision routes, they're good with their running game. They outnumber you in their running game by getting tight ends and multiple formations. You've got to stay in your gaps.

"They'll mix it up I'm sure. It usually makes for a harder-to-defend team to do two things. The quarterback's an effective player. They throw on rhythm a lot, which kind of prevents teeing off on him a bit. It's kind of hard to rush those guys. The receivers do a really good job of getting open.

"It's another one of those teams where you go in there and see the number of formations. It's a mind-boggling number of stuff they've run one or two times. When you try to defend everything, you end up defending nothing. We've just got to be as fundamentally sound as we can.

"Our guys have got to want to be there and want to be playing that game more than their guys. We've got to make it extremely important to play as hard as we can play. It's gonna be one of those effort games."

UI Bandit Michael Buchanan is wary but confident going into battle.

"They pretty much have a balanced offense. They slip a lot of screens in there, and they do a lot of I-formation stuff. One thing they do, they execute. But if we execute our assignments and play hard, we should take care of them."

Defensive end Whitney Mercilus perhaps describes best the situation facing the Illini this week.

"They're a pretty good team. Just like Arkansas State, they're the best in their conference. So we're not gonna underestimate them."

That is the key. If the Illini play hard and continue to execute without penalties and mistakes, they should match current expectations. But if they have an off day or take them for granted, they are the type of team that can rise up and embarrass you.

One way or the other, South Dakota State is a well-coached and confident team. Illinois will need to grab hold of this game from the start and never let up to achieve its goals.

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