Illinois @ Indiana: A Preview

The Fighting Illini football season continues on Saturday with the Illini looking to bounce back from their third consecutive loss last week at the hands of the Iowa Hawkeyes when they travel to Bloomington, IN.'s Brad Leshyn breaks down the Indiana Hoosiers in this game preview.

The battle for the Big Ten basement is headed to Bloomington this week. Harsh? Probably, but their two opening Big Ten games have exposed the Illini on both sides of the football. The defense simply lacks athletes and playmakers, and the big uglies in the trenches have reverted to their old habits of getting manhandled by opposing blockers. The offense has shown flashes, but with no downfield threat of any kind, the running game is being stymied. Add to that poor special teams play, untimely turnovers and penalties, and the youngest starting lineup in the nation, and you have an 0-2 start in conference play. But, do you know what? I'm not upset. While my 5-6 prediction may have been overly optimistic, I now realize how far we still have to go. We still need to learn how to win, and more importantly, how not to get discouraged when we trail, especially early. That's an institutional change that will take Ron Zook a while to turn around. Old habits do die hard. The Hoosiers are in a similar situation, and have shown plenty of promise early on, but the likes of Kentucky and Nicholls State don't strike fear in Mt. Carmel or Joliet Catholic, let alone actual Division I football programs. They did play Wisconsin especially tough, but how much of a hangover did the Badgers have after that thrilling last-minute victory over Michigan? This is a vital game for two programs trying to battle back from the abyss also known as the Big Ten basement. Confidence is huge in college football, and right now IU still has that edge. It's time for Ron Zook and his Fighting Illini to make a statement, and a road win in the Big Ten is a good way to do that, Indiana or not.

Head Coach
It's hard to blame folks from looking askance at Terry Hoeppner when he claims Indiana is his dream job. Usually, that kind of statement is reserved for the basketball program. But Hoeppner, a Ft. Wayne native, is not crazy. Early on in his tenure, a buzz about Hoosier football is slowly growing. Thanks to appearances around campus as well as throughout the state, season ticket sales are up 25%. He's also begun a pre-game walk through tailgating fans similar to the Illini Walk and he and the team will sing the school song to the student section after home wins. Hoeppner is coming off six outstanding seasons at the helm of Miami (Ohio). He led the RedHawks to a 48-25 record and currently stands eighth in the nation among active coaches' winning percentage (.662). He is the third former Miami coach to matriculate to Bloomington, and he is looking to add to the success of past Miami coaches at IU. The first, John Pont, led the Hoosiers to their only Rose Bowl appearance. The second, Bill Mallory, is the winningest coach in school history and led IU to six bowls in eight seasons. He has coached nine NFL draft picks, of which Ben Roethlisberger is the most notable.

Offensive Preview
Indiana fans will likely never forget the career of the great Antwaan Randle El, but sophomore QB Blake Powers is making an early name for himself. After throwing four TD passes against Kentucky on September 17, he became the first IU QB to throw at least 3 TD passes in three straight games. Make that four, as he tossed three more last week in Madison. His 14 TD strikes are tied for third most nationally, and are only three behind Randle El's school single-season record of 17. He is also throwing for 240.5 yards per contest. His favorite target is redshirt freshman WR James Hardy, whose 6'7" 215-pound frame is put to winter use on the hardwood. Hardy averaged 10 minutes a game for coach Mike Davis last winter, but it seems clear his future is on the gridiron. Through four games, Hardy leads the club with 24 catches for 423 yards and five TDs. He already has three 100-yard receiving games, including 157 last week vs. Wisconsin. James Bailey may only be the fourth leading receiver with nine catches, but his is the best story. Back in March he was hospitalized 12 days after an automobile accident and there were doubts over his future. Now he's playing regularly and of his two early TD grabs, one was a 46-yarder against the Badgers.

Tackle Isaac Sowells and guard Adam Hines, who has started 37 straight games, are the leaders of an offensive line that paves the way for a balanced rushing attack. In a pass-first offense, IU is running the ball for 163.2 yards per game and averages only 3.8 yards per carry. Seniors Chris Taylor and Yamar Washington share the load with Taylor leading the team with 289 yards. Washington has amassed 240 and his 11 receptions are second most on the team, although those 11 catches have gone for a mere 18 yards. Powers has some mobility himself, as his 73 yards rank third on the squad, but he'll never be confused with Michael Vick.

Defensive Preview
The leader of the defense spent his first three seasons opening holes from the fullback position. John Pannozzo was a three-year starter at fullback, but Hoeppner felt his skills were perfectly suited to play middle linebacker, and through four weeks, the experiment is officially a success. In his first career defensive start vs. Central Michigan he earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors and currently leads the team with 29 tackles, three sacks and 5 ½ tackles for loss. Ponnozzo's move also allowed Kyle Killion, a 2nd team All Big Ten selection in 2004, to move to outside linebacker which is better suited to his sideline-to-sideline skills. Killion currently stands second with 26 stops, three of which have come behind the line of scrimmage.

The defensive line had a strong showing last week, and was instrumental in holding the potent Wisconsin ground game to only 103 yards. Charlie Emerson and Russ Richardson anchor the middle, and although Greg Brown recently lost his starting gig to Emerson, he still sees plenty of time. Brown has more bulk that Emerson and Richardson and that may be useful as Big Ten linemen aren't known to be skinny. The ends, Ben Ishola and Victor Adeyanju have 4 sacks between them along with 8 tackles for loss. Like Adam Hines, Adeyanju, a Chicago native, has also made 37 consecutive starts.

In the defensive backfield, CB Tracy Porter is the playmaker, but Wisconsin WR Brandon Williams made some big plays against him last week as he admittedly had one eye on Brian Calhoun and the other on Williams. Porter does have one of the Hoosiers two interceptions and he leads the team with 2 passes broken up. Will Meyers has 16 tackles from his strong safety spot and free safety Troy Grosfield has 19 tackles, eight of which came a week ago. He originally came to IU as a kicker, spent a little time at WR, and now has finally settled in the defensive backfield.

Final Analysis
While this looks to be Indiana's last winnable game, it is still easy to see what difference coaching makes though the seasons first four weeks. Terry Hoeppner has instilled a winning attitude that was nowhere to be found during the less-than-memorable Gerry DiNardo era. Blake Powers looks like a potential all-conference caliber signal caller and James Hardy also is a star in the making, much to Mike Davis' chagrin. The Illini still lack game breaking talent on both sides of the ball, but just because the Hoosier defense controlled Brian Calhoun last week doesn't make them suddenly invincible. Let's not forget this same defense allowed 408 rushing yards to Nicholls State. The bottom line is that the Illinois offense needs to continue to control the clock offensively to keep a reeling defense off the field. They had some good drives vs. Iowa, but poor red zone play, a previous Illini strength going in, kept them out of the game. That's what turnovers and a poor kicking game do, and that cannot continue when your defense is among the worst in the conference. In the end, the Powers-to-Hardy combination will be too much to handle and the Illini will become a Homecoming victim for the second consecutive week as IU wins 34-24.

Random Musings From My Couch
  • Time for the harsh truth. The talent level is still far below where it needs to be to be competitive. A big thanks to Ron Turner for that.
  • I am making an eagerly awaited road trip to SEC country this weekend. I can't wait to see what all the fuss in Knoxville is about. I can't wait to be overwhelmed by the overplaying of 'Rocky Top.' I can't wait to get a good look at those Southern Belles. Oh yeah, Tennessee-Georgia makes for a pretty good matchup, too.
  • Random Big Ten musings: Minnesota once again proved it can't win a big conference game. Is there any bigger disappointment in the Big Ten than Purdue's much ballyhooed defense? Is there a more valuable player in the league than Michael Hart? I used to think that title once belonged to Drew Stanton, but Michigan was a completely different team offensively with Hart running the ball.
  • I still despise Ozzie Guillen and probably always will, but I cannot be happier with how the White Sox finished the season. They beat the Indians like a drum…
  • Let's see more of Rashard Mendenhall and less of E.B. Halsey this week. Halsey still has a lot of value, particularly as a receiver, but he simply lacks the power of Pierre Thomas and the burst of Mendenhall. Let's see what the kid can do in games more meaningful than San Jose State.
  • How about those Bears! You have to love a division so bad that you can move into first place without even playing. Looks like 8-8 takes home the divisional hardware.

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