Illinois knows it is in for a big test Saturday evening. Arizona State has great speed throughout it's lineup and plenty of experienced veterans. Illini head coach Ron Zook shares his thoughts on the game and the importance of a full house of supportive fans.
"It's a great football team, and it's a great opportunity for our football team. They're very explosive. They have a tall quarterback who can make plays. Defensively they play hard. We're looking forward to the challenge.
"This is the kind of week that everybody's excited about. I've talked to a bunch of fans, and the fans are excited about a night game and the opportunity to get all cranked up.
"We're gonna need everybody in the stands. It's gonna be a great challenge. It's the Big 10 against the Pac-12."
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning is even more specific about the importance of everyone being at their absolute best Saturday night, including the fans.
"We need everybody on our team, everybody in the stands, the cheerleaders, everybody from the equipment guys to the trainers to everybody in this whole organization is gonna have to be at their best on Saturday.
"I've got to call one of my best games, and our plan's got to work. If it doesn't seem to be working, then we've got to adjust."
As of this writing, the game is not a sellout. Offensive tackle Jeff Allen doesn't know what to make of it, but he sure hopes the remaining tickets are sold before game time.
"To be honest, I don't know what to expect. Hopefully we have a great turnout. It's a big game, it's a night atmosphere. We hope they come out and get this thing rocking.
"I think the crowd is important every game. They definitely can make a difference for us. It's very important to intimidate the opposing team.
"We need the fans supporting us and bringing the noise, especially on the defensive side of the ball on third and long. That can mess up their communication on offense."
Middle linebacker Ian Thomas reinforces how much fans can enhance defensive intensity.
"The crowd affects the game if it's a packed house. When we have the momentum, the crowd gets louder. It's always good when it's a packed house. A night game, prime time, it's probably a little more intense."
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase also appeals to Illini Nation for its full support Saturday.
"I think the people in Champaign and the surrounding areas should definitely be excited about this game and what we're doing. We hope it will be loud and crazy come Saturday. It could sure be a big factor in helping us win."
Illini coaches have great respect for Arizona State counterparts
Arizona State has veteran coaches who are highly respected.
"Coach Erickson has a couple national championships and has been successful wherever he's been," Zook reminds. "As a coach, you love to have the opportunity to compete against these guys.
Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino knows Erickson from his Montana background. He is also familiar with offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and defensive coordinator David Bray.
"I know all those guys real well. The defensive coordinator, when I was a young 25 year old guy, I washed his back deck to make some extra money. We were at Idaho together. He was the defensive coordinator then, and I was the running back coach and receiver coach. I was making about $500.00 a month.
"Coach Bray is a good guy and great coach. The secondary coach (Greg Burns), I coached with him for two years at Louisville.
"To me, it's exciting to go play those guys. Coach Erickson is a Montana guy, the quarterback's from Montana. It's exciting to go in there and get after them, see what we're made of.
"You want to play better against people you respect and people you like. My dad and Coach Erickson have been friends for years. I've always thought a lot of Coach Bray."
Koenning has coached against Erickson previously, and it was especially memorable.
"I remember him throwing 86 of 93 snaps when he was coaching Miami and I was coaching at Memphis. They like to throw the ball."
He is familiar with Mazzone through reputation and his educational materials.
"Noel Mazzone's one of those offensive coordinator's everyone's heard of. He's sold a lot of books and has a lot of videos and is well-known and is a very astute offensive coordinator. And Coach (Dennis) Erickson, how many great offenses has he had? We're going to have our work cut out for us."
Illini players and coaches evaluate the Arizona State offense.
The Sun Devils have an experienced offensive line, talented running backs and a bevy of outstanding receivers. But the first name on the minds of Illini coaches and players is Brock Osweiler. The 6'-8" Osweiler is the tallest quarterback in the nation. He has an accurate gun for an arm, and he is surprisingly mobile.
"I've never seen one like it," Zook confides. "He's a very good athlete. He was a high school basketball player and was gonna go to Gonzaga to play basketball. All he's done is gotten better and better, and he's playing with a lot of confidence.
"You try to stay in front of him a little bit, but you need a stepladder to get to where he can't see. It'll be a great challenge for our defense."
Arizona State runs a hurry-up spread offense that is explosive and can score quickly according to Zook.
"Their offense is much like they run at Texas Tech, and much like they're running at West Virginia now. They're gonna keep you on your toes. They spread you out, and when you get spread out too far, that's when they run the football.
"Our defensive backs will be tested. They know that, and I think they're looking forward to it. They run the ball well, but they also throw the ball all around. They make big plays, and the quarterback gets them the ball."
Koenning knows he has his work cut out for him.
"They are fast-tempo. That's something we've got to practice all the time. We've got to have a plan where the players can play fast. We can't go reinvent the wheel. Sometimes they're gonna make some plays, and we've just got to move on to the next play."
ASU uses the pass to set up the run, but it can move the ball on the ground.
"They can run the ball, they have effective players there," Koenning explains. "They run the zone read schemes, which are notoriously hard for us because it forces you to be disciplined. We've got to really work hard on that.
"Their running game is effective. They force you to play a five or six man box. Then you're not sound to stop the run, and they run the football. It's not rocket science, just numbers. And they're good enough up front to beat you one-on-one. So you still have to have proper gap control."
Koenning was asked what ASU offensive star he fears most.
"All their receivers, the running back and the offensive line. And a couple of tight ends when they put them in there.
"(Jamal Miles) is a guy they move everywhere, and we've obviously got to know where he is. He's a guy that can do so much for them in all aspects.
"Their receivers remind me of the premier receivers at Missouri like (Jereme) Macklin. They're somewhat similar to Missouri. The secondary will be tested. We're still not perfect, and there are a lot of things we have to do just right.
"You can't reinvent the wheel. There's only so many coverages, two deep, quarters, three deep and man. So you can only do so much. Guys are gonna have to make plays, read their keys and be in the proper leverages."
Osweiler is so tall, he can still release the ball with defenders hanging onto him. The Illini have been practicing a technique for knocking him to the ground.
"We practice roll tackling every Tuesday, where we get in a guy's legs and roll."
Confounding Koenning's problems further is the difficulty applying an effective rush on Osweiler.
"They get rid of the ball fast. They've always got "hots," and they have the type of protection like (Mike) Leach did at Texas Tech where they have a basketball screen to create a pocket back there. It's not an easy thing."
Thomas believes the Illini defense will be ready for this huge challenge.
"They throw a lot. The quarterback will run, but he doesn't look to run. Their running game is okay; that's my job to shut that down. We'll be ready."
Illini evaluate the ASU defense
The Sun Devil defense has speed and strength everywhere, but the unquestioned star is future pro middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Besides being large and fast sideline to sideline, Burfict sets an example for his brethren by making vicious tackles.
"From watching tape, it seems their emotion comes from their defense and the MIKE linebacker," Zook relates. "He looks like their emotional leader. He's an awfully good player, as is their WILL linebacker. No question this will be the toughest test for our offense. They want to make sure you know they're there, there's no question about that.
"They're not a big pressure team, but they fly around. They're gonna play over-under like everyone does in college. (Junior Onyeali) in particular is a special guy. He rushes the passer and makes things happen."
Illini fullback Jay Prosch will likely bang heads with Burfict frequently according to Zook.
"He's big every week, but I think there's a chance those two might run into each other a time or two."
Petrino provides further detail on ASU defensive schemes.
"Their defensive coordinator is kind of one of the gurus of quarter coverage, cover 8, and he does a real good job of coaching it. They're a big, fast defense. They're well coached, and they play hard. Schematically, they're somewhat similar to Michigan State. We'll just have to play harder."
Do you game-plan either to run at or away from Burfict?
"I think it's based on what the defense is. I don't know if it's necessarily at him or away from him. In some formations we run right at him, and in some formations we run away from him. It depends on what their front is and what plays we have called. We'll be doing both.
"I think you always game plan by personnel. We will always game plan by the front, the coverage and what the personnel is. You look at the front first, then the coverage and then the personnel and decide what the best play is.
"You know they're a better team. Defensively, they do look like a top 25 team. I care more about what you see on tape than how they're rated. You watch tape 12 hours all day, and you know how good they are. It's got to be a game where we play real well."
Scheelhaase has been studying lots of tape on ASU's defense this week also. He has great respect for Burfict and the entire ASU defense.
"He's a good middle linebacker. We've played against good middle linebackers before and have experience against it. The Big 10 conference is full of middle linebackers this year. We'll be ready for him.
"He plays well going side to side. He's able to use his speed well to get downhill. It will be important for our linemen, fullback and receivers to get him cut off.
"They're athletic all over the board. Their defensive line and linebackers are really athletic. That's something you've got to be aware of and lock onto them as blockers.
"We've definitely got to use our strength against them. But we feel like we're pretty athletic, especially on the outside. Our receivers are looking forward to going against their dbs. It should be a great test across the board.
"Our guys are looking forward to going against him and the rest of the defense. You like to play guys who are excited to get on the field and getting after it. That's the kind of guys we have."
Allen feels the Sun Devil line is key to its entire defense.
"They have a pretty good defensive line. Their d-ends are really good, their linebacking corps is good. They're just good and very athletic across the board on defense.
"We've got to come out ready to play. We prepare well, we've just got to come out with intensity and match their effort."
Pocic knows the Illini need to match ASU's emotional intensity without going overboard. He says the Illini are forewarned about not being flagged for retaliation penalties.
"They play very fast. We've got to play faster, and we've got to finish to the whistle. We can't let their emotion affect us. We've got to play how we play.
"Jumping around, trash talking, they're an emotional group. They like to do some extra activities after the whistle. We can't afford to hurt ourselves and get personal fouls and stuff we don't need."
Illini players and coaches share their thoughts on the upcoming game.
* Petrino: "It''s a game we've been looking forward to. We game-planned them a lot over the off season."
* Defensive end Tim Kynard: "They're coming into our house, and we've got to defend it. They've got a great offense, their quarterback and o-line. It's going to be a battle.
"I watched the Missouri game when I was in the hotel before our game. They can move, and they can throw it too. Them boys is good. It's gonna be a challenge. We'll be ready."
* Receiver A.J. Jenkins: "It's a night game, primetime, so it's gonna be fun. It's been a game I've been wanting to play. I've never played a Pac-12 team. I can't wait.
"We're gonna try to score a lot of points. I want to have a good game and lead my team to victory. But this game is way bigger than me.
"A win would be great for us. It would be a real confidence boost for us going into the Big 10. I don't want to say this is a must win, but we do need this win for our confidence.
"They beat Missouri, and Missouri is a real good team, so I know they're gonna come in here thinking they're gonna beat us. Coaches are gonna spend hours and hours watching film on them, and we're gonna go out here and do our thing."
* Freshman inside linebacker Ralph Cooper: "Everybody's focused. You can tell the mentality, everybody wants it. We're the underdogs because they're coming in ranked. We're all more focused than last week. So hopefully we can put up a big number."
* Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore: "Sometimes when you play teams that aren't this highly rated, you have a tendency to let down a little bit. But there should be no letdowns this week.
"You're never where you want to be. We're still trying to work through a few new things. I'm sure as the week progresses we'll get those things polished up. It's always a work in progress. Until we win the game, I'm not satisfied."
* Pocic: "We've just got to go one game at a time. If we could go 3-0, it would be awesome. It's our house. We want to try to win all of them at home. That was a goal that we set, and we want to achieve it.
"It's a big game, Saturday night. I'm excited. You've got to be excited. We're taking it one game at a time. There's extra emotion. I think everybody feels a buzz going on around campus and in the locker room. I think the focus is there, and I'm real excited for Saturday."
* Thomas: "It's definitely a statement game, depending on how we play. We really want to show what we're working with to build on.
"We've got to lead the young guys, show them how to come up for a game and prepare every week. This week isn't any different than the last two weeks. We practice as hard as we can and just try to be perfect."
* Receiver Darius Millines: "I can feel it's gonna be a great atmosphere. The team, we've all been talking about how we have a nice game under the lights against a good opponent. Everybody's fired up, and we're ready to play.
"This is our test right here. This is gonna see where our team is. This is what I've been looking for, to see where I'm at mentally against a better opponent.
"When we get this big win, it's gonna give us even more momentum going into our next game. This will be a great confidence-builder for our team."
* Zook: "Speed is something that is hard to prepare for. Those guys are big, strong and fast and make big plays. Any time you play a game like this, it takes a series or two to adjust to the game speed. We tell our players to withstand the onslaught. It's a long game, and we're not gonna win or lose the game on the first play. We'll play to a different level also.
"Our players are excited about it. It's gonna be a great atmosphere, and everybody's gonna be fired up. The minute they walk out there Saturday night, they will feel the buzz. Our guys need to go have fun and enjoy it. With prime time, national television, all those things, it's an exciting time."