The Illini football team is in a win-win situation this weekend. Playing their first away game with a young team against a talented and ranked California Bears unit, the Illini are expected to lose big. Thus, almost any result will be accepted by a fandom that has learned patience while coach Ron Zook rebuilds the program.
Of course, Zook and company are planning to play the Bears toe to toe, and an upset is not out of the question. But we will need to play our absolute best to do so. California was a dominant team last year, and their coach Jeff Tedford has upgraded the talent in Berkeley to the point the Bears now expect to challenge for Pac-10 and national post-season honors every year. Cal lost a large number of talented seniors after this last season, but their replacements are equally talented and eager to prove their worth.
California has a wide open passing attack, and they are not afraid to go for the long bomb frequently. Tedford is considered a quarterback guru, so he will always have top quarterbacks in his program, and he will always have them prepared to pick apart opposing defenses. In that sense, Tedford is similar to another Bear coach, Mike White. Both have the special skill to recruit strong-armed quarterbacks, and both can develop those quarterbacks into high NFL draft choices.
Some Illini fans are hoping Joseph Ayoob will falter at quarterback, but don't count on it. Yes, he is replacing first game starter Nate Longshore, who is out for the season with a broken bone in his leg. But Ayoob was national junior college offensive player of the year last year, and he overcame his first game jitters with a dominant performance last weekend at Washington. And some are hoping running back Marshawn Lynch will be unable to play due to a broken left pinky, but the man Californians say is as good as last year's All-American J. J. Arrington will likely play regardless. And he has some good backups, just in case.
To win, Illinois will need to find a way to limit both the Bears' running and passing attacks. It won't be easy to counter Cal's excellent and experienced offensive line, but that is what is required. Restricting the running attack and forcing Cal into an every down passing attack is usually called for in games like this, but Cal's passing attack is too sophisticated to take lightly.
The Bears are able to recruit great wide receivers, so Illini secondary defenders will need to keep those receivers in front of them if at all possible. Of course, they also must stick with those speedy receivers man-to-man when the Illini blitz because the Illini will need to apply as much pressure as possible against Ayoob in the hope he will become flustered and miss his passes.
California will score, and it may score frequently. The Illini's young defense will need to keep its confidence no matter what happens. And they will need to fight their best until the absolute end. If we make them earn everything they get, we will feel better about ourselves whether we succeed or not. And we can then have the chance to pull out a victory if we can continue to score ourselves.
Cal did lose three top defensive linemen, five of the top six linebackers, and half its secondary to graduation. But they still have a great deal of talent from which to choose including some stud junior college transfers. The Illini will be able to move the ball, especially if we can take advantage of their inexperience at some defensive positions. But we must continue to score until the last second, even if we have a lead. Cal can come from behind as well as anyone, so no lead is big enough.
The Illini are still somewhat an unknown, in part because our two victories have been against teams who are not highly rated. It is not the purpose of this article to demean the Illini or assume they will lose. On the contrary, hope springs eternal, and an upset is possible. But Cal EXPECTS to go 4-0 to start the season, so they see the Illini as an easy mark, especially at home. If the Illini are better than advertised, now will be a grand time to prove it. A victory would be a fantastic accomplishment, but it is one we must eventually make if we are going to become true winners.
Each Illini needs to study the Cal tapes and prepare throughout the week for a supreme effort. Each man needs to come together as a team, helping each other prepare for the game and uniting for a common goal. Travel to an away game sometimes helps this effort because we will be without the comforts of home and without our fan base. If we can avoid the distractions and nervousness of a long trip, we can play Cal toe to toe. But if all our youngsters get caught up in the hype of the game or lose focus due to the strange surroundings, we could get blown out.
It might help if California takes the Illini lightly. After all, they are coming off a big win against a conference rival at Washington. And Ayoob appears to be an all-or-none player who is usually real good but on rare occasions finds himself at the opposite end of the spectrum. It would help if Ayoob is a little off his game Saturday.
But regardless of the intangibles, the Illini must simply play their best game to date to win. They must assume Cal will be fired up for the game and have everyone healthy. They must plan to hit for 40 minutes without faltering or losing their belief. They must win the turnover battle, pressuring the quarterback into throwing interceptions and knocking the ball loose during gang-tackling. And they must eliminate the special teams breakdowns that cropped up last game.
The Illini can win, but a loss will not ruin their season. If the Illini can continue to improve and play well against a talented team, they will gain much national respect even with a loss. So they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by tossing all caution to the win and flying around Cal's stadium like they have no fear of failure. This attitude would make the Illini extremely dangerous, especially if Cal takes us lightly or looks past us.
Win or lose, the Illini can gain more self-confidence and respect if we can play California tough. Of course, a win would be even better.
What must Illinois do to defeat California?
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