Fighting Illini Bus To First Road Game At IU

The Fighting Illini football takes its perfect record on the road for the first time this season, traveling to take on the Indiana Hoosiers in Bloomington Saturday. The Illini are favored against a team with a 1-4 record, but they have great respect for their opponent and its new coaching staff. They expect a hard-fought game, just like most Big 10 games.

Illinois head coach Ron Zook is grateful to have five home games to begin the season, and he's pleased with the fan support. But he is looking forward to his Illini football team's first road game at Indiana Saturday.

"We've been (home) for five weeks, and now we're going to wear the white jerseys. We haven't worn the white jerseys since the bowl game, so I think our guys are anticipating the trip a little bit, to go on the road and bond together. It's kind of us against everyone."

Zook sees a Hoosier team that has the potential to upset most any Big 10 opponent.

"You look at this football team, and they could very easily be 5-0 just like us. A bounce here, a ball there. They lost two games by field goals, and they had a heck of a game last week against Penn State. So our guys understand that we're going to have to be ready to play."

The Indiana offense has some unique aspects that require practice preparation according to Zook.

"Indiana's offensive scheme is high-tempo. You're going to be going fast; they're not going to let you rest. They're going to screen you to death. They do a lot of things that are going to cause you some issues.

"They're going to try to out-number you. If you start to spread yourself out, then they're going to count the numbers and run the football. And if you get boxed in too much, then they're going to throw the screens, and they run every kind of screen that they make."

IU lists two quarterbacks as possible starters. They have some differences, but the offense is the same according to defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.

"One (Dusty Kiel) seems to have the ball come off his hand a little bit faster. The other one (Edward Wright-Baker) seems to move the team. The last kid they put in against North Texas (Kiel), they scored 21 unanswered points to make that game close. It seems to be who they're going with. He's got a catchable ball, he's got a fantastic football background and family. Obviously, the team is rallying around him."

Koenning knows new IU coach Kevin Wilson, who formerly coached at Oklahoma. He explains it is more important to match Illini strengths to Hoosier tendencies than to focus excessively on individual personnel.

"What we're gonna have to do is concentrate on us and prepare for their different schemes. Coach (Ron) West and I both played against OU our previous stint, so we've got that information to fall back on. Like we always do, we try to turn over every stone. Sometimes you can have too much stuff. We've also got to do what our guys do best."

Like Zook intimated, Koenning is leery of Indiana's screens.

"They do screens as well as anybody we've played this year, last year and forever. Screens hurt us last week, so we'll get tested. We'd done a really good job of that until last week. They (Northwestern) put two linemen on the backer. With their two linemen tackling him and grabbing him and throwing him down, it kept him from getting to the screens."

The Hoosier offensive line is the smallest in the Big 10. Illinois's defensive line is about the same size.

"That'll be a first," Koenning bemuses. "We have to at least break even up front in every game. This will be no different."

To counter their lack of bulk, IU's linemen are more mobile and go for defenders' legs to take them out of the play.

"What they do with it, the ball is out quick, and they do a lot of cut-blocking at the line of scrimmage. They neutralize some of that stuff."

Cut-blocking can be dangerous for onrushing defensive linemen, but defensive end Whitney Mercilus says the Illini will be well prepared.

"We actually practice against a cut a lot. It's like second nature now. We have to play a cut a little bit more this week. On three step drops, they do cut a little more. We've just got to keep playing fast."

Bandit Michael Buchanan agrees.

"We have to work on not allowing ourselves to be cut. That's not really acceptable with our coaches. We have to read our guys and stay off the ground."

Buchanan has responsibility to prevent some of the screens Indiana runs.

"There may be a lot of situations where the back is my man. I have to find him wherever he goes."

Mercilus says the Illini have experience against hurry-up teams.

"They do a lot of quick-tempo offense. We saw that versus Arkansas State; it's not much different. We're just gonna have to be in the mode of playing fast."

Zook explains IU's defensive strategy.

"They don't pressure a lot, but (they play) a lot of man coverage. That's how they get their extra people in the box, by playing a lot of press man, and they play some press quarters as well. They're going to load the box and put a lot of pressure on their corners, and we're going to have to be able to protect and block."

Illinois offensive tackle Jeff Allen anticipates multiple looks from the IU defense.

"They do a lot of different things with their defense. They've got some guys on the defensive line that are athletic, from a defensive end standpoint. On the inside, they look pretty good. They have one linebacker #53 (Jeff Thomas) who's a pretty solid player."

Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino agrees while adding information about the secondary.

"They play real hard, and they have a real good middle linebacker. The two freshmen safeties from Louisville that they're playing now are good players. They play hard, run around and hit."

Tight end Evan Wilson says Illini receivers are salivating at the one-on-one coverage they expect from the Hoosier secondary.

"They run a lot of man coverage. So we're gonna hit a lot of man-beaters, a lot of underneath-and-then-run-away-from-guys because we've got a fast group of receivers. A.J. (Jenkins) is gonna have a big game this week. I think them playing man is gonna be very beneficial to us."

Indiana is playing a lot of freshmen, so inconsistency is a problem. And like the Illini last year, it takes time to learn new systems. But Zook reminds the Hoosier coaching staff is experienced and likely to make improvement quickly as the season progresses.

"They've got a great coaching staff. Every game, they've gotten better and better. Their staff has coached an awful lot of ball, and they know what they're doing. It takes time to learn the systems. They've made a lot of changes, but you've got to get the right guys on the field."

Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was recruited by Kevin Wilson as a high school player in Kansas City. He expects mutual admiration to transform into heated competition.

"I know Coach Wilson personally; he recruited me at Oklahoma. Defensive back coach (Brandon) Shelby was a Rockhurst graduate. I'm looking forward to it. I know they're gonna be ready to get after me, so I'm looking forward to do the same."

The veteran Allen hopes his understanding of playing road games rubs off on his younger teammates.

"I feel like it's the same. It's even better when you win on the road. You take the excitement away from the crowd. They die slowly as you take a lead and take control of the game. You've got to prepare the same and keep the same attitude you do at home."

The Illini are favored, but the first away game always presents unique challenges. They've enjoyed an excellent week of practice, and their confidence is soaring after the 5-0 start. But Zook cautions them to play their best Saturday.

"We're gonna have to be ready to go. I think our guys understand that. Winning Big 10 football games is hard, and winning on the road is even harder. Anybody can beat anybody."

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