Ohio @ Illinois: Preview

The Fighting Illini football team steps out of its Big Ten schedule and hosts the Ohio Bobcats this Saturday evening at 6:00pm at Memorial Stadium. The game will be a good test to see how a young Illinois team responds to adversity. Illinisports discusses Illini prospects for the game in this article.

The Fighting Illini football team returns to action this Saturday with an evening home game with Ohio University. The Bobcats enter with a 3-3 record after upsetting Western Michigan last weekend, while the Illini try to recuperate from a last-second loss to Indiana.

This will not be an easy game, for a number of reasons. One, Illinois will likely have difficulty rebounding emotionally from the frustrations of the Indiana game. Fans want the Illini to be breathing fire, but the players may need some time this week to reach an emotional peak so soon after seeing victory turn to defeat last week. Without their best effort, the Illini might be hard-pressed to win.

Second, Ohio will enter the game with confidence while the Illini players might have lost some after last week's results. The Bobcats will not fear the Illini, especially after seeing lowly Indiana score 34 points against them. And they have former Illini quarterback Brad Bower on their sideline to help them with game preparation and player analysis even if he sees no playing time at quarterback. Ohio University will travel to Champaign expecting victory.

And third, the night game will occur shortly after a big Arctic blast is scheduled to hit the Midwest. Fans still bitter about the Indiana game will be dubious to begin with. But the weather likely will further reduce home attendance and crowd enthusiasm as fans sit on their hands trying to keep warm. Any advantages of having a night home game might be nullified by the weather and the dour mood of the fans.

Ohio has a good running game as taught by former Nebraska head coach Frank Solich and run by tough option quarterback Austen Everson. Solich is in his second year in Ohio, so his players have a much better understanding of his system this year than last. Their passing is sometimes suspect, and their defense has some inconsistencies. But they can have success against the Illini if they can move the ball on the ground.

Illinois will need to play inspired defense to stop the run and force the pass. If they can do this consistently, interceptions and inconsistent passing may doom the Bobcats. But if the Illini take Ohio lightly, they can get whipped along the line of scrimmage and make the game difficult to win.

Offensively, the Illini may be better off if they don't get a big early lead. That way, they will be playing to win instead of playing to keep from losing. Until they become mature enough to play tough even with a big lead, perhaps a close game is to their advantage. It will place more pressure on quarterback Juice Williams to perform under pressure, and this may cause more mistakes. But Illinois needs to keep Ohio's defense off balance by mixing runs with long and short passes so the Bobcats cannot key on any one area.

Juice is still a freshman, so it is understandable why coaches Locksley and Zook give Juice less risky plays to run with a lead. That way, he is not forced to put the game on his back to make plays a freshman shouldn't have to make. But at the same time, he must be able to use his gifts to keep Ohio guessing defensively. It can be a difficult balance, but Illini coaches need to commit themselves to a combination of low-risk and high-risk plays and let come what may.

Some want Coach Zook to open up the offense completely for Juice. However, one might wish to recall the days of riverboat gambler Mike White and reconsider. Illinois got blown out of some games under White, and they lost leads in others simply because they kept passing into strong secondaries that transformed interceptions and mistakes into points. And Illinois was using mature, experienced quarterbacks for these games. A young freshman who has not yet celebrated his 19th birthday is even less likely to be efficient with a high-risk offense.

Also, Ohio will likely learn from Indiana's strategy of blitzing their linebackers. Indiana used run blitzes to plug gaps on obvious running downs, and their pass blitzes had the effect of placing more pressure on Williams to execute. Juice is inexperienced at recognizing these blitzes and audibling into plays that can exploit the resulting defensive imbalances. One cannot predict how Juice will respond to an all-out pass rush as previous teams have respected his scrambling ability and limited such blitzes. But Ohio might just see benefits to this strategy, especially since their defensive strength lies in their linebackers and secondary.

The main thing Illini coaches need to do this week is remind the Illini how many good things they are doing and keep their heads up despite their frustrations. It is important for both the coaches and players to ignore negative fans and not let fan anger impact the emotional preparations for the game.

It is hoped the players will bounce back quickly from their disappointment. But if they have dug themselves as big an emotional hole as some of their fans, they may not be able to extricate themselves in time for Saturday's game. Thus, the coaches will need to inspire and uplift their troops to get the most out of them.

This may seem like a pressurized situation with the chance of an improved season record on the line, but the coaches must convince the team to enjoy themselves and play for the fun and love of the game. Fans may see it as "must-win", but the coaches should see it as "must-enjoy." That way, the players will perform at their relaxed best.

The players must commit themselves to playing at a top level no matter the score or situation. They cannot become complacent and assume victory with a big lead, and they cannot become despondent with mistakes. They must be willing to lay everything on the line at all times and remain convinced they can come from behind should they need to do so. In other words, they must play their best regardless of the situation, as if each play will be their last. This is the attitude of a mature, winning team.

A victory, any victory, is important for the future of this young Illini team. If they play their best, they can win Saturday. But it will be a battle all the way.

Go Illini!!!

Illinisports, illinisports@illiniboard.com

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