Eastern Illinois @ Illinois Preview

The University of Illinois begins its 2006 season with a night home game against Eastern Illinois University Saturday. A renewed sense of optimism is apparent, but questions must still be answered. Illinisports speculates on what it will take to overcome a fine Panther team in this article.

The Fighting Illini football team opens its 2006 season with a 6:00pm night game against the Eastern Illinois Panthers this Saturday. Fans are eager to see improvements in a team that struggled last year with a 2-9 season. What will the Illini need to do to win?

Eastern is a Division I-AA school, so Illinois is a definite favorite. However, EIU poses numerous problems for a young Illini group, and they disagree with the pundits who assume they are inferior because they play lesser competition. The Panthers have the confidence gained from many years of success, and they have several emotional factors in their favor. They believe they can win, making them a dangerous opponent.

EIU was undefeated in their conference last year and ended with a 9-3 season record. They return 9 starters on offense and 7 on defense, and they have four recent transfers from Division I-A schools to provide extra experience and maturity. They have no fear of a young Illini team, and they have a strong desire to beat their more famous brethren.

This is the first ever meeting between the two schools, so the Panthers are eager to prove themselves. Many are graduates of Illinois high schools, and they have a strong motivation to beat a school that didn't recruit them. A number of them were either late bloomers, transfers from major schools who desired more playing time, or didn't fit the idealized measurement standards most Division I-A schools use when evaluating players. But they are quality football players who have every reason to believe they can win.

Besides these psychological factors, the Panther players will be dedicating their efforts to their ailing head coach Bob Spoo. The veteran mentor with an outstanding career record had recent surgery and won't be on the sidelines Saturday. This writer wishes Coach Spoo a speedy recovery but is naturally concerned the Panthers will be sky high and play to their absolute best ability as a tribute to their fine coach.

EIU has an experienced offense, and their offensive line is outstanding. Star running back Vincent Webb will likely test the Illini defensive line repeatedly. Tapes from last season's Illini games will give the Panthers encouragement they can succeed with a power running game. Of course, with their pro style offense, experienced quarterback Mike Donato and his more multi-dimensional Ball State transfer rival Cole Stinson will probe the Illini secondary and mix run and pass. In their minds, EIU expects to score frequently.

Thus, the Illini defense will receive an immediate test to see how much they have improved since last year. Illinois will have to stop the run to be successful. If they can force EIU to pass, they can insert their speed rushers and nickel package to pressure the EIU passing game. This is always the goal of any defense, but that goal was reached only rarely by the Illini in recent years. Knowledgeable fans will be watching the battle of the trenches to see if the momentum of the game begins to shift to the Illini side. If EIU's veteran offensive line controls the line of scrimmage, it could be a long day for the defense.

Offensively, the Illini will need to minimize mistakes and hold the ball for long drives. They need to score, but they also need to keep their defense fresh and off the field. It will likely be a warm evening, so the defense will play better if it can catch its breath while the Illini offense marches down the field.

EIU's defense is undersized on the defensive line after graduating some outstanding players last year. So most assume the Illini will try to maximize their running game with the threesome of Pierre Thomas, EB Halsey and Rashard Mendenhall running behind an improved offensive line. But the Panther linebackers are quick and aggressive and will expect just this eventuality. These linebackers would have been highly recruitable for Division I-A if they had been a little taller. They must be blocked for the Illini running game to succeed.

Illinois operates out of a wide open spread offense, so they will pass frequently to mix run and pass to keep EIU's defense off balance and try to attain an early lead. However, quarterback Tim Brasic will probably be asked to eliminate turnovers and avoid high risk plays. If he can continue moving the chains and get the team into the endzone, Illinois can outscore the Panthers. But every failure will strengthen EIU's confidence and resolve. If the game is close in the second half, any result is possible.

Illinois has some excellent young players, but many of these will be seeing their first college action. Big plays are possible, but so are big mistakes. Illinois will likely go through some growing pains in their first several games. How quickly the youngsters can mature and relax will determine their success rate.

Besides taking deep breaths and relaxing before and during the game, the freshmen and redshirt freshmen expected to see playing time should always remember to take every opponent seriously. This can be difficult for all players but especially the young ones. On the surface, Eastern Illinois may seem beatable. But they are capable of winning and should be respected as such. Let's hope our players learn their lessons with a victory and not a defeat.

If these fine young players play their games and do not come out nervous and tight, Illinois has more firepower than Eastern. But if they become overwhelmed by the speed of the college game, they will play at much less efficiency and give EIU better chances to compete. It is hoped Illini fans will be patient with the whole team, and especially the youngsters. They have talent, so encouragement will help bring that out more quickly.

This Illini team could be a good one, but they need some early successes to gain confidence and experience. Illini fans are encouraged to attend the game with their game faces on, prepared to expend all their positive energy to give Illini players an extra boost.

The Illini Walk that precedes the game needs a big attendance as well, to let the players know the fans have their backs as they make their way to the locker room. If the fans become a strong 12th man, all Illini fans, players and coaches can go home happy.

Go Illini!!!

Illinisports, illinisports@illiniboard.com

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