Illini Welcome Hoosiers for Homecoming

The Fighting Illini welcome the Hoosiers of Indiana into Champaign for 2006's Homecoming celebration. The Illini are coming off a very emotional win on the road against Michigan State, and are looking for their second straight win, and to even their record at 3-3 after six games on the season. IlliniBoard.com's Brad Leshyn has more in this preview of Saturday's contest.

Only one thought raced through my head at about 2:30 last Saturday afternoon: I can't believe what I just saw! With my apologies to the late Jack Buck, nothing sums up last weekend's sweet victory better than that. A real football team (hopefully) now resides in Champaign, IL. A real quarterback now resides in Champaign, IL. And – gasp! – a real defense now resides in Champaign, IL. For now, Illini Nation is still delirious from this program's biggest win since 2001. Ron Zook, while exceedingly proud of his team, now needs to focus his team's energies on the Indiana Hoosiers, who are reeling after a 52-17 thrashing by Wisconsin a week ago. The Hoosiers play nearly as many freshmen as the Illini (23 Hoosiers have seen their first collegiate action thus far) and have instability at quarterback and at head coach as Terry Hoeppner missed two earlier games due to brain surgery. While Hoeppner, thankfully, appears fully healthy again, his team, however, has taken a giant step back in 2006. Coming off a blowout loss and playing a stoked Illini outfit is not the ideal way to get a program back on a winning track. Hoeppner is an outstanding coach with a fantastic track record at Miami of Ohio, a.k.a. the Cradle of Coaches, but IU is a football wasteland. Neither Cam Cameron nor the great Gerry DiNardo could resurrect this moribund program. That Bill Mallory somehow managed to win regularly in Bloomington is stuff reserved primarily for "Ripley's Believe It or Not." Hoeppner called this his dream job upon his hiring, but unfortunately for him, the 2006 season is looking much more like a nightmare.

When the Hoosiers have the ball
Heading into 2006 there was some optimism in Bloomington. QB Blake Powers showed tons of promise a year ago throwing for 2,305 yards and 22 TDs. His favorite target was WR and part-time power forward James Hardy who looked like a future star with 61 catches and 10 TDs. My, how fortunes have changed. Powers has ceded the quarterbacking duties to the more mobile (and healthier) Kellen Lewis, a redshirt freshman whose 316 yards of total offense in his debut against Ball State was the most by a Hoosier signal caller since Antwaan Randle El amassed 467 back in 1998. On the year he is accounting for 194 all-purpose yards per game, but has yet to win in three starts. Hardy spent the off-season embroiled in some legal issues and has already missed two games for breaking team rules. On the year, he has only eight catches for 120 yards and a touchdown. In Hardy's absence, Lewis has spread the wealth among a plethora of receivers with junior WR James Bailey leading the way with 17 grabs for 179 yards. Nick Polk (14 catches for 161 yards), Ray Fisher (13-137), and Jahkeen Gilmore (10-141) round out the balanced receiving corps.

The running attack has struggled in the early going thanks to inexperience along the line. The left tackle spot is now in the hands of true freshman Rodger Saffold and the other side is manned by junior Charlie Emerson who made four starts at DE a year ago. Another true freshman, Pete Saxon, saw time at left guard last week. With no workhorse to carry the load, the running game has taken a ‘by committee' approach. FB Josiah Sears leads a struggling ground game that averages only 92.2 yards per game and 3.1 yards per rush. Most of Sears' team-high 170 yards came a week ago as he ran for an even 100 on nine carries. Lewis his shown to be dangerous with his feet as his 110 yards are next best. Sophomore Marcus Thigpen is perhaps the most dangerous back thanks to his 4.29 speed in the 40-yard dash. His speed is a big reason he leads the nation with 38.4 yards per kickoff return. He has returned two kickoffs for scores already, becoming the first IU player to take two kickoffs all the way in the same season. He has been bottled up on the ground thus far (3.0 yards per carry) but is still adjusting to running back after being moved from WR in the spring. Not surprisingly, he puts his speed on display in the off-season as he is also a member of the IU track team.

When the Illini have the ball
The star of a defense that cedes 365.6 yards per game is junior CB Tracy Porter who is second in the Big Ten with three interceptions and first in passes broken up with five. He has amassed nine career picks and with three more he'll have second place to himself on IU's all-time list. Two weeks ago against UConn he picked off two passes, broke up another in the end zone, and notched Indiana's first blocked field goal in nearly four years. Chris Phillips mans the opposite corner and his only career pick was returned 66 yards for a score against Western Michigan in the season opener. SS Troy Grosfield, a former kicker who registered 13 touchbacks in kickoff duties in 2003, had a career-high 15 tackles and returned a fumble for a TD last week against Wisconsin. FS Will Meyers' nine stops a week ago added to his team-high total of 33.

The front seven is rather nondescript as no one player has stood out. DE Brian Faires recorded three tackles behind the line and two sacks in his defensive debut against Western Michigan, but has none of either since. RE Kenny Kendal (1½) is the only other Hoosier with more than one sack. Josh Bailey leads the team with 4.0 TFL from the Buck position, which is a hybrid of safety and linebacker similar to the bandit spot Michigan State employs. Adam McClurg and Geno Johnson lead the LB corps with 30 and 29 stops, respectively, and have combined for five TFL and two sacks.

Fun Facts
Limestone is the Indiana state stone. Yes, you heard that right. They have a state stone. It is the primary building block for all buildings on the IU campus and is the basis for Hoeppner referring to the Hoosiers seven true freshman offensive linemen as "The Seven Blocks of Limestone."

Wide receiver Lance Bennett's talents don't lie solely on the football field. Besides ranking second in school history with 1,566 career kick return yards, he and his brothers, Lemar and Lennie, have written two songs for Will Smith. For those of you rushing to iTunes to download them, they are "Switch" and "Black Suits Comin' (Nod Ya Head)". Bennett has also composed theme songs for the football and basketball teams.


Illini Inquirer Top Stories