The Illini football team opens its 2005 season under new coach Ron Zook this Saturday against Rutgers. There are many parallels between Rutgers and Illinois. Both teams utilize wide open offenses but have questions on defense, and both need victories to build momentum toward a winning season. So the game is expected to be extremely close. What must Illinois do to win?
First of all, the Illini need to come out fired up and ready to play good football from the opening kickoff. It is hoped the enthusiasm generated by having a talented new coaching staff will help the Illini overcome their first game jitters. It is also hoped that Zook and company have created a no-quit attitude that will allow us to overcome the fear of failure that has limited us in the past.
Second, we will need to keep Rutgers' offense off the field by using a ball-control attack that produces first downs and touchdowns. Rutgers has an excellent passing attack and an improved run game, so keeping the ball in our own hands will allow our defense to get some rest between possessions. We need to keep our defense fresh due to a lack of depth at some positions, so every Illini first down serves two purposes.
Rutgers has not been highly successful on defense for several years now, but they do have much experience and depth that could be improved this year. The Illini will need to keep Rutgers off balance by using the no-huddle to wear the Scarlet Knights down and prevent frequent substitutions. And they will need to spread the field with their passing threats to open up holes for our excellent running backs. Balancing run and pass will keep the chains moving, and continuing to attack for the whole game can wear down most opponents.
The Illini defense will likely use two linebackers and five defensive backs most of the game due to the Scarlet Knight's talented passing offense led by quarterback Ryan Hart, fullback Brian Leonard, tight end Clark Harris, wide receiver Tres Moses and a bevy of other receivers. Rutgers will try to balance run and pass, so shutting down their running game is imperative. If Rutgers must go exclusively to the pass, we will have a better chance of stopping them.
Our defense must play with aggressiveness and reckless abandon, and it must maintain confidence despite occasional failures. Rutgers will score on everyone they face, and Illinois is no exception. Holding them under their average starts with a strong pass russ and requires quick reactions to minimize yardage from the Scarlet Knights' myriad short and medium range passes.
Blitzes will be frequent, so Rutgers may occasionally break a long one. Our blitzes need to pressure the quarterback well enough to keep the big plays to a minimum. It is believed the quarterback Hart does not have an extremely strong arm for the long pass, so the Illini will try to stop the short passes for short gains. Of course, turnovers are essential, and Illinois will need to improve on this statistic from recent years.
It is likely that special teams will play a major role in the game's outcome. Rutgers has a strong-legged place kicker, and he and the Illini's Jason Reda have had about the same amount of experience and success in the past. But punting is perhaps the one area where Illinois has a big advantage in the form of Steve Weatherford. The Illini will benefit from the good field position a great punter can provide. And Weatherford keeps all defenses honest with his great athleticism being a threat on punt fakes.
Ron Zook has a strong personal interest in special teams, and it is believed that Illinois will win many of the special teams battles under his coaching. Zook has filled his special teams with speed and more speed. Don't be surprised with occasional fakes and other unexpected play options off punts and kickoffs. And don't be surprised if E. B. Halsey and Pierre Thomas break some good gainers on kick returns.
Finally, the Illini fans need to show up in large numbers prepared to cheer loudly for four full quarters. There will be first game jitters and imperfections. There will be tightness from the many newcomers dotting Illini lineups. Rutgers will make good plays that will remind some of past Illini failures, but we are a new team with new coaches. Fans must heal past wounds and develop an appreciation for the important role they play. Illinois is in a transition phase from mediocre to good to great (hopefully), so they are more in need of fan support now than perhaps any other time. The fans can help push the team to a new level.
The game is close to a tossup, with any advantage going to Illinois only because of playing on its home field. Rutgers EXPECTS to win, and they are under intense pressure to save their coach's job. They have many upperclassmen who have taken their lumps as raw freshmen but are now stronger, more mature and more ready to meet the challenges of a Big 10 opponent. They will be tough to beat.
If the Illini fail, remember it is just one game for a youthful team that will get better as the season progresses and whose real potential may not be reached for another 2-3 years. If the Illini win, they we will have earned the victory against a quality opponent that has its back to the wall.
Win or lose, the Illini will be exciting to watch. We hope to see you all there.
Rutgers @ Illinois: What Illinois Must Do To Win
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