Illinois-Indiana: Illini Keys to Victory

It is the first Big Ten game of the year for the Illini and, almost as importantly, the first game after the best performance of the Ron Zook era. For that reason, the coach has implored his team not to feel to good about themselves, but instead to play with a chip on their shoulders. There also are other keys to victory in this interesting matchup.

Benn there, done that: Never before has Arrelious Benn been so important. But this team has playmakers and you have to match them. You also have to move the chains and keep Indiana's offense off the field.

Benn now has gotten his feet wet, this is game four. He has been very good, but has yet to take over a game. But on reverses, short passes, a few deep ones, now is the time.

I called the Florida-Tennessee game last week and when Tennessee got the lead whittled back down to 28-20 in the second half, Percy Harvin took over the game. And coaches put him in position to do so. It is time for that to happen with Benn.

Contain Kellen: Maybe the most important key for the defense. Quarterback Kellen Lewis rushed for an amazing 199 yards last week and is extremely dangerous out of the pocket. He excels as both a runner and a passer on the run. That is why Illinois ends must not overpursue. Get there in a hurry, but don't break contain. Maybe the key to the game for Illinois' defense. Have to keep Lewis in front of you.

Bind The Big Three: Indiana is going to make some yards. But the key is not to let them go crazy. That means nothing long from Lewis, wide receiver James Hardy or running back Marcus Thigpen. All three terrorized Illinois last year; Hardy has done so for two years.

So Thigpen must be contained, both as a kick return guy and a runner. That means Illinois has to tackle, which it didn't do as well last week as coaches would have liked. It also means not breaking assignments on swing passes, screens, etc. Thipgen is the Hoosiers second leading rusher to Lewis, but the goal always is to get him in the open field. The first guy may miss, but there has to be a swarm when this guy has the ball.

Hardy is a tough matchup because he is a 6-foot-7 wide receiver, something you just don't see very often. He isn't the leading receiver – that is Ray Fisher who has 16 catches to Hardy's 10 – but Hardy is the dangerous one. Spread formation football has advanced to the point that there are so many receivers and defensive backs on the field that it is hard to designate one defensive player to mark one specific receiver.

But I'd still love to see Vontae Davis play him most of the time. Maybe not practical, but Vontae is ridiculously physical for a cornerback and wouldn't back down. He'd bang on Hardy as much as Hardy bangs on him. Remember, last year, Vontae was a true freshman and Alan Ball, who played better late in the year, wasn't playing very well early. I'd love to see the matchup.

Gotta run: Everything Illinois does on offense is built around the running game. The key here is to stay with it. Because Indiana isn't nearly as good on defense as it is offense, there is temptation there to attack through the air in search of home runs. But the Illini are at their best when their running backs -- Juice on the option, Benn on reverses, are getting the ball often. They have to have it here.

Sometimes that means staying with it even if there is not early success. In the past, Mike Locksley has gambled down the field on second and short. This game, I'd like to see him get the first down then, then maybe gamble on the ensuing first down.

Hit the Open Guy: Biggest game of Juice's career so far. Can avenge last year, can go 1-0 in the league, can outplay a quarterback who is getting great attention. The key is he doesn't have to be spectacular, just efficient. Don't turn the ball over, manage the game, when a receiver runs open, hit him. Remember, he comes in as a 60 percent passer.

Much of that is Locksley has dialed up safe passes. He needs to do that again. If Juice is 6 for 17 at any point, Illinois is going to lose the game.

Withstand offensive run: I don't mean running plays, I mean when Indiana goes on a run. Sometime during the game the Hoosiers will find a rhythm offensively. When they found it last year, they never lost it. Indiana is good on offense and will move the ball. When that happens, have to hold them to field goals, not touchdowns. Have to get off the field on third down. Third down defense is really critical in this game.

Fast start: Indiana is brimming with confidence. The Hoosiers expect to win, so getting off to a good start will give them even greater confidence. I think Illinois has to have a tie in the first quarter and a half – play them to a push.

If Indiana doesn't lead early this time, they are in trouble. If Illinois at some point in this game sees evidence that it should win and gains their own confidence, then look out. That would be good.

All in all, this is a game Illinois can win. But it won't be easy. Oddsmakers have installed Illinois as a favorite because they are trying to establish even betting and fans have seen Illinois hang in there against a good Missouri team without Juice and maul Syracuse. They just haven't seen Indiana.

I would have made the Hoosiers a three-point favorite – they earned that playing at home and with last year's win. They also know if they are going to get Illinois one more time, they better go ahead and do it. Word it out Illinois will have a roster more like Ohio State and Michigan than Minnesota and Northwestern as early as next year.

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