Iowa @ Illinois: Preview

It is time for the Big Ten season. Whatever has happened previously, the Fighting Illini football team has a chance to turn a new page as it continues its heated rivalry with the University of Iowa Saturday. Illinisports discusses Illini prospects in this report.

The Fighting Illini football team begins the Big Ten portion of its schedule this Saturday morning at Memorial Stadium against the unbeaten Iowa Hawkeyes. They will be huge underdogs thanks to an erratic and unsatisfying nonconference performance.

It is this writer's task to predict what Illinois can do to win the game. However, it is doubtful many readers will take such estimations seriously as they have already put the game into the loss column. It IS possible for the Illini to pull an upset, but they will need to have more confidence in themselves than their fans have. So regardless what Iowa might do in the game, it is Illinois' game preparation and confidence level that will likely determine the final score.

The first thing Coach Zook and his staff need to do is remain optimistic and keep reminding their players how close they are to having a good team. The defense is holding its own and even showing improvement week to week. Continuing this momentum throughout the season will keep the Illini in a number of games. It is the offense that needs a big confidence boost.

The offense needs to come together as a team, to the point everyone is playing for each other and not for themselves. The offensive line must operate as a single unit, and it must keep its poise and eliminate penalties. If a linemen gets beat on a play, he gets beat. But he shouldn't try to win the game on a single play and do something irrational that hurts the team.

The same is true for the wide receivers. Each receiver must take advantage of any ball thrown his way and catch it at all costs. He must have a sense of urgency to view each opportunity as possibly his last and make the most of it. While it is nice to gain positive yards after the catch, no yardage can be gained without the ball securely grasped. If the ball is thrown hard it must still be caught. If it leads to a broken finger or hand, so be it. Only when the receivers understand how important their few opportunities are will they begin to catch passes consistently. And only then will the quarterbacks, coaches and fans trust them on the field.

Illini quarterbacks Tim Brasic and Juice Williams will have to show poise and confidence beyond their present level of experience. If they tighten up and let the importance of the game overwhelm them, they will not perform to the level needed. Iowa always has a sound defense under the direction of defensive coordinator Norm Parker, a one-time Illinois assistant under Gary Moeller. The Hawkeyes will likely force the Illini to go on extended drives to reach the endzone, giving up short yardage and hoping the Illini self-destruct along the way. Tim and Juice will need to perform with efficiency and eliminate mistakes to succeed.

At this writing, it is not known which quarterback will start for the Illini. Many fans will be upset unless Juice starts because he offers hope for the future. But it is asking a lot for a raw freshman to lead confidently against an experienced Big Ten defense eager to scare a rookie into mistakes. Those who have given up on the season want Juice to get all remaining playing time so he will be ready to lead a better team next year. But nine games remain, and Coach Zook wants to get some wins this year.

Thus, it would not be surprising if Brasic starts Saturday. Illini coaches don't want to destroy Juice's confidence by putting too much pressure on him before he is ready. And Tim did an excellent job running the offense against Syracuse before he missed some passes and his teammates committed hurtful penalties. He offers the value of experience and knowledge of the entire offense.

Juice Williams offers the excitement of a quality athlete with a great arm who can spread the defense with his ability to throw long accurately. But he would be given a simpler version of the offensive package to limit his mistakes, making it easier for Iowa to defend.

Juice has more skills to bring a team from behind. If Juice started and Illinois got behind early, Brasic would have a difficult time bringing the Illini from behind. Regardless who starts, both will play. It might be best to keep Iowa guessing by not announcing a starter until game time.

Iowa has a top quarterback in Drew Tate. He is the epitome of what Illinois has lacked since Kurt Kittner graduated as he makes plays under pressure. He completed 28 of 36 passes last week against arch rival Iowa State, and he is called an outstanding leader who draws the best out of his teammates. Iowa players can relax and play within themselves, trusting that Tate will make great plays to help them win. Illini fans are hoping against hope that Juice Williams will untimately be that kind of quarterback. If he is, the Illini will win many games.

The Illini defense will need to be alert on every play to counter Iowa's potent and diverse offense. Running back Albert Young was All-Big Ten last year, and the Hawkeyes have several quality receivers including freshman Dominique Douglas. The Iowa offensive line, aided by a couple of Illinois state stars, is a typically capable group under coach Kirk Ferentz, a former offensive lineman. And they are masters of legalized holding. This is the best offense the Illini have faced so far, so this game will be a good barometer to see how much the Illinois defense has improved over last year. If Iowa scores at will, the Illini offense will be unable to match points with Iowa.

This is a good time to play Iowa. They just defeated intrastate foe Iowa State in a highly emotional game last weekend, and mighty Ohio State will present them with a stiff challenge next week. If they were to ever suffer a low cycle, it would be the Illinois game where they are prohibitive favorites. At the least, they likely will not be highly concerned about the 1-2 Illini.

Of course, this possible advantage will not matter if the Illini allow their losses to damage their confidence and belief in themselves. The Illini need to be at a peak mentally and emotionally to play their best. If they can do this, they can win the game. But even a close loss would encourage Illini fans, especially if the Illini show some fight throughout the game and give their fans hope for the future.

This is a big weekend for the Illini for several reasons. Besides needing to get a win for their self-esteem, they need to overcome a long Big Ten loss string. Also, there are few rivals who raise the ire of Illini more than Iowa. In addition, there are a number of outstanding recruiting prospects visiting for the game, some on official visits. A good showing would make the recruiting task easier for Coach Zook and his hard-working staff.

The Illini cannot be counted out in this game. But they will need help. Fans are encouraged to put aside their frustrations, attend the game and cheer loudly and incessantly for an Illini upset. The Illini desperately need an energy boost from their fans. If we want the players to play their best, then we must give our best and continue to fight for victory until the last tick of the clock. No matter what adversity presents itself, if coaches, players and fans all stay the course until the end, good results are possible.

A victory would change the complexion of the entire season. Hope springs eternal. Get fired up Illini!!! Remember, it's Iowa.

Go Illini!!!

Illinisports, illinisports@illiniboard.com


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