Indiana @ Illinois: Preview

Homecoming was first held at Illinois in 1910, and Illini alumni have been returning yearly ever since to renew friendships and create new memories. Illinisports hopes the 2006 Homecoming this Saturday at Memorial Stadium will be especially memorable.

The Fighting Illini traveled to Michigan State and upset the Spartans at their Homecoming to end a long Big Ten away game losing streak. This weekend, the Indiana Hoosiers have the exact same opportunity as they bus over to Champaign for an 11:00am kickoff at Memorial Stadium.

The Hoosiers have lost 17 straight away games and are long overdue to correct the imbalance. They have a distinct advantage in that most people predict an easy Illinois victory, allowing them to sneak up on the Illini. They will be primed for the upset since they remember whipping Illinois last year in Bloomington 36-13.

The Illini are at an emotional peak after their big win last week, but they must come back to earth quickly to obtain their third win. They are simply not good enough yet to take any game for granted. They must be prepared to fight like they are the underdogs and prepare for the Hoosiers as if they are preparing for the best team in the country. Nothing short of their best effort will get the job done.

Actually, Illinois can go in one of two directions. One, it can take the confidence gained from the big victory and use it to play even better the rest of the season. Some teams play significantly better once they know they can win. They relax and trust they can do a good job and then go out and do it. Others get cocky without cause and lose the focus that got them the big upset win. It will be interesting to see which team Illinois is at this point.

Indiana is struggling this year. They lost some of their best players to graduation, and Coach Terry Hoeppner's predecessor didn't leave much talent for him. The Hoosiers are extremely similar to Illinois in many ways, and they too must rely on numerous freshmen and redshirt freshmen. They are struggling especially with their offensive and defensive lines, and this is where Illinois may have some advantage.

But quarterback Blake Powers had a great game last year against the Illini, and his passes to 6'-6" super athlete James Hardy were impossible for Illinois to defend. Both are expected to see action Saturday, although the junior Powers has been forced to share playing time with a senior and a redshirt freshman. In fact, freshman Kellen Lewis took most of the snaps against Wisconsin and may get the start since his mobility helps compensate for his inexperienced offensive line. If one of Indiana's quarterbacks gets on a role, he could cause the Illini some problems.

The Illini defense has shown marked improvement this year, but the defenders must play with great emotional effort to have an impact. If they let down, they can look mediocre at best. It is likely Illinois will play its base defense with little gambling in the hope Indiana can be neutralized that way. But we saw what happened to Michigan State last week when it got conservative. At least, the Illini secondary will need to keep track of Hardy at all times and not let him burn them deep.

Offensively, most observers feel the Illini can run consistently on Indiana's young defense. But last week Indiana put eight people in the box to neutralize Wisconsin's strong running game. They will likely attempt that again. The Badgers ruined the Hoosiers' game plan by completing several long bombs for quick scores, which then opened up their running game. It might have been a much closer game if Wisconsin had missed those passes.

Illini offensive coordinator Mike Locksley will probably try to keep things simple for freshman quarterback Juice Williams, mixing short passes with option runs. But he may be forced to let Juice air it out a few times to spread the defense. If Juice is off his game, and most inexperienced players have down games right after successful ones, Indiana can make a game of it. Or, if Juice gets too cocky and takes unnecessary risks, the resulting turnovers can destroy Illinois' prospects.

Coach Zook stated immediately after the Michigan State triumph the importance of Illinois learning how to win. He referred in part to winning with dignity and not resorting to childish displays that embarrass opponents. But he also referred to the process of refocusing on the next opponent and not letting the results of the previous game influence proper mental and physical preparation.

Given all the youngsters on the team, there is a risk Illinois will have some difficulty preparing properly for a game they are favored to win. But quality teams rarely if ever lose to teams they are favored to defeat. Learning to win requires learning to give great effort even if it seems a mediocre job might result in a win. Young teams often have cyclic reversals of fortune. If Illinois is down this week, they could suffer for it.

It is wonderful to pull the big upset on someone else's turf. It is great for the team, the fans and recruiting. But the Illini now need to validate that win by defeating Indiana Saturday. If they win, they will even their season record at 3-3 and set the stage for a positive last half of the season. But if they lose, they will be back to square one and will need to pull out some other upset to reestablish proof of their improvement.

Illini fans looking to celebrate a glorious Homecoming will be eager to support the Illini. It is hoped this support will help the Illini get over any rough spots and lead them to victory. The fans are an essential component of any successful team, so we hope to see a big crowd Saturday. The Illini have earned the support from the fans by upsetting MSU. Now, they need to give the fans a reward for their perseverence by winning again. It is definitely doable, but it may be tougher than some people hope.

Go Illini!!!


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