Illinois will try to end a three game losing streak at home against the 7-2 Michigan Wolverines. It will not be an easy assignment. The Wolverines boast dynamic quarterback Denard Robinson and tons of speed on offense, and they have a defense far better than last year's edition.
Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning groped for superlatives when assessing the UM offense.
"Denard's a great player. They've got a lot of really good football players, especially on offense. They have I believe the most experienced and most athletic offensive line that we've seen.
"Last year, they reached us at will, and they have the same guys. They're almost all fourth and fifth year guys. They've got depth, so they rotate guys in. And their receivers are tremendous.
"They win a lot of one-on-one battles. To have just a small chance against Robinson, you've got top put your guys in one-on-one situations. They're a very explosive team, and that's why they get so many points and yards.
"Their favorite play is a quarterback power. They use their linemen pulling a lot due to their athleticism. They run a lot of different plays. It's just a maze of one time this, one time that. It makes it hard to hang your hat on."
Robinson has blazing speed and must be contained on every play. If you employ too many defenders to stop the run, he can burn you with the pass. Illini cornerback Tavon Wilson explains the Illini task Saturday.
"You've got to do your job and trust in your teammates to do their job. You can't try to do too much and stop him by yourself. You have to play team defense. Last year, we had the idea he wouldn't be able to throw to beat us, but that's exactly what he did.
"We definitely need to get some takeaways this game. They're a very explosive offense. We need to take the ball away from them to give our offense as many opportunities as possible."
National sack leader Whitney Mercilus has great respect for Robinson.
"Denard Robinson is phenomenal. He can throw it, he can run it, he can do whatever, man. As a defense, we're gonna have to make sure to keep an eye on him. Read keys, have guys where they're supposed to be, play ball and have fun."
Last year, the Illini defense was on its heels, hesitant to attack out of fear of breaking contain. But that is not their style. Mercilus says they will be more aggressive Saturday.
"Definitely. We didn't attack him in the first half last year. In the second quarter, things started getting tight. That's when we started attacking him and disrupting things. We learned from last year."
Michigan makes every game exciting; no lead is safe according to Illini head coach Ron Zook.
"I mean, they've came back three or four times this year when they looked like they were down and out. So this is a game that's 60 minutes long and, as we've told our players, it's not going to be over 'til it's over."
Koenning may take a cue from how Iowa defended Michigan last week, although no defense can put a permanent stop to the explosive Wolverine offense.
"We're gonna have to play our very best football to give us a chance to win. You can't just stop them. Iowa didn't give up the big play. Eventually, they made some mistakes in the red zone a few times."
New defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has made major improvements in the Michigan defense. Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase says the Illini can learn from what Iowa did against them last week in victory, but it will be a tough assignment regardless.
"Iowa runs some similar stuff to us, so it helps to see them play against the teams we play against. There's some stuff we'll take that they did well. But it's gonna come down to execution.
"Same people out there. But last year they ran something that was very different from everybody in the conference. Now they're more of a base-type defense. They bring blitzes from different places. It'll take some preparation, but it was nice to have the bye week to do that."
Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino says Michigan loves to blitz.
"They pressure a bunch. He is a pressure guy, he likes to get after you. He runs a lot of different things, so it's a totally different scheme than last year."
Mattison tried to recruit Illini receiver A.J. Jenkins when he was at Florida. Jenkins knows UM has a good secondary, but he sees opportunity knocking as well.
"They're pretty good. They're very athletic and coached well. It'll be a good battle between us and them. It will be a lot more man coverage, so hopefully we can win the battles.",P>Weakside tackle Jeff Allen knows the UM defensive line will be tough to block.
"They've got a big one-technique nose tackle (Mike Martin) who is pretty good. He gets up the field, gets a lot of penetration, makes a lot of plays in the backfield. We'll have a tough assignment there.
"They bring a lot of different packages on third down. You can't really game plan them on third downs because each game they bring something different. You have to be able to adjust during the game. Having been here four years, I can be a coach on the field, telling our coaches what we see. That helps the adjustments."
Strongside guard Cornell agrees with Allen when assessing the UM defense. He praises Mattison and his defenders.
"That's a good team, and we're gonna get their best game. A great defensive coordinator, he really knows his stuff. And they've got some good athletes up front. We've got our work cut out for us."
Scheelhaase feels a need to make up for the heartbreaking overtime loss in Ann Arbor last fall.
"I feel like we owe them one. We feel like we definitely need to return the favor at home this year. Last year was an exciting game; it's unfortunate we came out on the wrong side of it. We're really looking forward to a great rivalry game."
Wilson feels the same way. The Illini defense has much to atone for after last year's embarrassment.
"We didn't play the way we're capable of playing last year. They scored 67 points on us. We're gonna do everything in our power to not let it happen again."
With three straight losses, payback is insufficient motivation to guarantee victory. Mercilus reminds how important it is for the Illini to get back on the winning track.
"For us, this is a statement game. With those three losses, it was petty mistakes that happened."
Zook is encouraged by ticket sales, which have now spilled over to the obstructed seats. He knows the Illini will need every bit of support it can muster to pull out a much needed win.
"This is a great game, it's a big game, it's a (nearly) sold-out game. We're gonna need our fans. Our fans have been great, and we're gonna need them. We look forward to getting back on the field and playing."