The Indiana Hoosiers and Illini football teams have much in common. Both have suffered through two consecutive losing coaching staffs since their last quality teams but are now optimistic their newest coaches will help them reclaim lost glory. Both are ranked at or near the bottom of the powerful Big 10 this year. Both are starting inexperienced quarterbacks and have several additional holes on both offense and defense. So it should be a good game this Saturday in Bloomington.
However, the Indiana players have apparently developed much more confidence through their first four games than the Illini have through five. They won all three of their nonconference games (confidence is always boosted by defeating weak opponents). And then, after a week off, they gave Wisconsin a decent game in Madison. They were expected to lose big, but it is likely their play was encouraging for them even in defeat. The statistics were practically identical, and the Hoosiers played a tough Wisconsin team even throughout the second half.
If there is one big advantage that every Big Ten team has on the Illini right now, it is confidence. We are comparable to Indiana in talent level, so confidence level may be the deciding factor. Playing the Hoosiers on their homecoming weekend makes us a definite underdog anyway, but unless we can begin to believe in ourselves and play like winners, Illinois will continue to struggle.
Indiana has strengths at offensive line, linebacker and the secondary. And they are excited about some of their young receivers, a couple of whom may be faster than anyone in Illinois' secondary and one, erstwhile basketball player James Hardy, is all of 6'-7" tall and can claim vertical territory all his own. Everyone has trouble defending tall receivers who can run.
The Hoosiers use a wide open spread offense that is becoming popular around the country, and they will likely pass more than past Indiana teams. New coach Terry Hoeppner had winning seasons all six years he was in charge of the Miami of Ohio program, so he and his staff are accustomed to winning. He is said to be especially successful tutoring young quarterbacks, so the strong-armed Blake Powers is benefitting from the tutelage. If he can get the ball consistently to his young but speedy receivers, he will cause Illinois problems.
Of course, they might just decide to run the ball until Illinois shows an ability to stop them. We haven't shown much ability to stop running plays against anyone up to now, so this will be a definite temptation for them. Their experienced offensive line will likely open some holes, although their backfield is not among the league's best. But they will still wish to pass the ball frequently. Illinois' defense will need to improve to keep the game close.
Defensively, the Indiana defensive line is still in the formative stages, but their linebackers are a definite source of concern for Illinois. Against Wisconsin last week, Indiana set their defense to stop the Badgers' powerful running game, and they did a respectable job of it. Wisconsin was forced to beat them with the pass, which they did.
It would not be surprising if the Hoosiers employ the same tactic against Illinois. Placing 8 or 9 defenders close to the line of scrimmage plugs the running holes, and it limits the short passes as well. To beat such a defense, Illinois will need to get some receivers open for medium and deep routes, where they are likely to encounter single coverage. Of course, this may not be easy for Illinois.
First of all, Illinois may continue to struggle with pass protection. Besides possible blitzes that have often disrupted our passing attack, our young offensive line is getting younger by the minute. Ben Amundsen substituted for the enigmatic Martin O'Donnell at left tackle for most of the Iowa game. A redshirt sophomore, Amundsen has some potential but minimal experience.
And left tackle J. J. Simmons has a knee injury that forced him out at Iowa. While Simmons is probably not an all-conference selection at this time, he is significantly better and more experienced than any substitute we have. With letterman tackle Jim LaBonte also struggling to regain conditioning and health after summer back surgery and recent hip and ankle woes, Illinois has precious little tackle depth. You know Illinois is still searching for a line unit that can mesh and carry out its assignments when it is considering using true freshman Eric Block at one guard spot. Block has ability, but it is asking a lot for a raw freshman to compete against senior defensive linemen in the Big 10.
Second, Illinois has not yet shown the ability to burn defenses on deep routes. Even with a favorable wind, Tim Brasic has some trouble throwing long. Against a strong wind, it simply won't get done and may not even be attempted. In addition, some of our receivers lack burner speed, limiting us to using raw freshmen Kyle Hudson and Derrick McPhearson as deep options. They are our fastest receivers, but they must get open and receive the ball in position to catch it to have the effect needed. If Illinois can begin to hit some long passes, it will open up all the other shorter pass routes plus the running game.
Recent defensive woes by the Illini make game planning by armchair quarterbacks difficult. One wonders if there is anything we can do successfully to stop Indiana or anyone else. But we could have some success against the Hoosiers if we can stack up their running game and force them into being one-dimensional. Powers is as inexperienced as Brasic, so if we can apply consistent pressure, he might struggle. Of course, those are big IF's at this time.
The biggest thing Illinois needs to do to win the game is to enter it with confidence. Perhaps our players can receive some group visualizations from a psychologist to anticipate success rather than failure. They beat themselves up mentally with negative thoughts, and they need to counter those thoughts with positive ones. If not professional assistance, at least they need to forget the past and think only of the moment at hand. If they can do that, they will be starting the game on even footing. If they can maintain confidence even after Indiana scores its first points and not begin to anticipate failure, they have a chance to win the game. Without unwavering confidence, winning will be difficult at best.
Coach Ron Zook and staff need to hit the recruiting trail hard this year and all years. But until we can bring in some top athletes to help us for future years, we must deal with what we have. Illinois does have some good players, and we will need to ride their efforts until something better comes along. In fact, unconditional fan support and encouragement at this time can be a big help to strengthen fragile egos who fear the isolation and negative judgment that follows failure.
Patience and persistence are virtues both fans and team members must maintain through these difficult times. We defeated Indiana last year at home. If Illinois plays with confidence on offense and reckless abandon on defense, we can win the game this year also. But nothing is easy in the Big 10.
Illinois @ Indiana: Game Preview
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