The Illini football team is riding high after their exhilarating comeback victory over Rutgers. And they are now favored to make it two in a row when San Jose State comes calling this Saturday. How will the Illini handle the favorites' role?
Young teams tend to overlook some opponents, and this is a big mistake Coach Zook and his staff must help the Illini avoid this weekend. The Illini are simply not good enough to win without their best effort. We must come ready to play for 60 minutes, or we could end up with a heart-breaking loss similar to the game against San Jose State three years ago at Memorial Stadium.
It is true the Spartans are coming off a 2-9 season. But they have a new coach in veteran Dick Tomey, the man who is the winningest coach in history of Arizona and Hawaii universities. And they have a lot of athletes. It may be too early to expect Tomey's coaching skill to make his new team into a national threat, but it is not too early to respect them. After all, they expect to beat Illinois, so they are not arriving with much doubt in their minds.
Tomey is a defensive genius. Expect to see San Jose State's undersized but quick defense put much pressure on our rookie quarterback Tim Brasic. There will likely be frequent blitzes and line stunts of all kinds. In fact, some liken Tomey's defense to Buddy Ryan's 1985 Chicago Bear defense. If Brasic can't find the hot receiver, or if our coaches can't put us in the proper plays to exploit an aggressive but gambling defense, then it could be a long day for Illinois.
Offensively, the Illini need to improve their efficiency and eliminate turnovers. Pass protection needs to be improved over last week, and blitzes must be recognized and neutralized if not exploited. Our running game should work against the Spartans' small, rebuilding defense, but we must continue to spread the field with a variety of runs and passes. Like Rutgers last week, we need to wear them down.
The Spartans run the West Coast offense, similar to Rutgers. Their offensive coordinator Ken Margerum played wide receiver under Bill Walsh and most recently coached at Stanford. He will try to spread Illinois out and open the passing lanes. San Jose State wants to balance the passing with a power running game, but they may still lack the personnel to make that happen even though quarterback Adam Trafralis can both run and pass. Thus, Illinois must stop the running plays and force SJSU to pass on every down. That will allow a better pass rush and give our secondary a chance to grab some turnovers (for a change).
It is likely the Spartans will be a threat to score on most possessions, so it is imperative for Illinois' offense to score frequently and keep our defense off the field as much as possible. If we give SJSU confidence by keeping them in the game early, we could have another struggle on our hands. The nightmare game of three years ago is before the time of many present Illini players and coaches so revenge will likely be no motivation. But history might repeat itself unless Illinois comes out fiercely determined to dominate early and often.
The Illini defense proved vulnerable last week, although to its credit it improved as the game went on. But we must continue to improve every game. We desperately need a better pass rush, and it is possible we will incorporate more blitzes to pressure the quarterback. This means more man coverage in our secondary, but it is hoped Tafralis will be running for his life so his passes will be off the mark. Considering all the quick 3-step drop passes incorporated by the West Coast offense, sacks are unlikely early in the game. But a fierce pass rush is still essential.
Ideally, the Illini will appreciate the opportunity to go 2-0 on the young season and will come out fired up to play well. But it can be difficult for young players to play at peak efficiency after a big emotional victory. It will be up to Ron Zook and staff to prevent the complacency that could lead to an upset loss. If we play our best, we can win. Anything less than our best and we could be in trouble.
If Illinois should happen to put the game away early, it will give them the chance to play more of their young players. This is essential in preparing for the grueling Big 10 schedule ahead. We need all players capable of seeing the field this year to get used to game speed and develop some confidence to help them relax and play at peak efficiency. If they don't get into games during the early part of the schedule, they will be major risks if injury should force them into a game later in the season.
Of course, this will not be possible during a close game. It appears Illini coaches wish to rotate a larger number of players than they did against Rutgers. But these extra players will not get much experience if San Jose State stays close or enjoys a lead. No other game on our schedule gives the Illini this opportunity, so it is essential that we play well. Past Illini teams have played their worst games when huge favorites, and this year's team must try to avoid such a deleterious circumstance.
Thus, the Illini should not look forward to the California game the following week. They should not play at anything less than 100% effort regardless of the opponent. This game could be a good test to see if our coaches can get us prepared for games we are expected to win.
Most teams make their biggest improvement between the first and second weeks of the season. If Illinois can make considerable improvement this week, we can win. A 2-0 start would be ideal for such a young team, so let's fill Memorial Stadium, stay until the end of the game, and cheer our lungs out to help the Illini remain unbeaten.
What must Illinois do to defeat San Jose State?
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