Indiana Tough Test For Illini

The Big Ten Conference football season begins this weekend. The Fighting Illini travel to Indiana to take on the Hoosiers Saturday in a game that is highly important for both teams. Indiana hopes to maintain its unbeaten season while marching toward a possible bowl bid. The Illini are looking for their first victory in a Big Ten opener since 1993.

Indiana has enjoyed great success against three mid-level teams so far this fall, and they have some offensive weapons who can scare the best of teams. Using a spread offense similar to Missouri, quarterback Kellen Lewis (6'-1", 185) uses both his arm and legs to great effect. Speedy running back Marcus Thigpen (5'-9", 195) and tall, athletic wide receiver James Hardy (6'-7", 220) take the pressure off Lewis with their play-making skills.

Lewis was named Big Ten Player Of The Week on offense after his mighty performance against Akron last Saturday. He ran for 199 yards and completed 19-24 passes for an additional 137 yards of offense. He now ranks 15th in the nation in total offense with an average of 320 yards per game. He has both the speed and arm to scare any defense.

Illini defensive coordinator Dan Disch is quite familiar with Lewis, having competed against him in Jacksonville, Florida, when Disch coached Ed White high school and Lewis played for Mandarin.

"We played against him when he was a sophomore in high school. He was in the same Gateway Conference with us. He was a good player then, scary as hell, just like now."

Head Coach Ron Zook concurs.

"He is a threat to our team. He's got a very quick release and a very strong arm. He can beat you with both his feet and his arm, and it's hard to defend a player like that. "He's a year older than Juice, but any time you're in your second year, you manage the offense and play with more confidence. I haven't seen any passes this year where he was just throwing the ball up there. We might have been his first game where he really had a breakout performance (last year)."

If you sit back to stop the pass, Lewis runs all over the field. If you try to pressure him, he can hit open receivers. Defensive end Will Davis and his line mates will have their hands full keeping track of Lewis.

"It's a little tougher this week because you have a running quarterback. Any time you have a quarterback who can do the things he can do, you have to have less of a rush and really be cautious of not getting behind the quarterback. He's shown he can scramble and make a lot of yards. So we have to have a minimum rush and get in the face of the quarterback and not behind the quarterback (not let him break contain)."

Defenses can't key on Lewis with Thigpen in the same backfield. He helped bring the Hoosiers back from a big deficit to beat the Illini in Champaign last year, 34-32. With a 4.27 clocking in the 40 yard dash, Thigpen is ranked as the top kick returner in the nation. He ran back four kickoffs last year against Illinois for 197 yards and a touchdown. He accumulated 311 yards of total offense in that game counting both rushing and receiving. Indiana has a quality replacement in Demetrius McCray (5'-11", 201), who has a higher yardage average than Thigpen right now.

Hardy is a highly unusual athlete. The possessor of good speed and great hands, Hardy is a full 6'-7" tall and poses a unique challenge to any defensive backfield. He and Lewis have worked hard together perfecting timing and routes, and it is almost impossible to outleap Hardy for high throws. The Lewis-Hardy connection has produced 14 touchdowns in their last nine games together. The Illinois defense will have great difficulty holding down the threesome of Lewis, Thigpen and Hardy.

Coach Zook has great respect for Indiana's offense, which is averaging 258.7 yards rushing and 477.7 total yards per game.

"We're getting ready to play a very good Indiana team. A team that by far, has the most skill of any team that we've seen. We faced a very good quarterback in the first game but their (Indiana) quarterback adds another dimension. A running quarterback adds a whole new dimension to the defense. The fact that their quarterback leads their team in offensive rushing tells you right there the problems that they will present to our defense."

Indiana lost its head coach Terry Hoeppner in the offseason to cancer, but interim coach Bill Lynch has continued right where Hoeppner left off.

"There has been so much improvement as an offensive football team, and I applaud what Coach Lynch has done in very tough circumstances. Indiana has stuck together and used the tragedy as a rallying point. They've done a great job of continuing right on into the direction that they had set."

Defensively, Indiana also presents a challenge. They are tied for the national lead with 17 sacks in three games and are sixth nationally in turnover ratio with +6 after grabbing five interceptions and five fumbles in their three games. And they have not yet given up any play as long as 20 yards. Coach Zook summarized their defensive strengths.

"Not only is Indiana a well coached team; they are playing at a very high level. We feel like the front seven are pretty good and also one of their strengths. Their safeties are all downhill players, and they've got a corner that was all-conference (Tracy Porter, 5'-11", 190). They play almost a nine-man front and have a corner that is second team all-conference. Their defense is going to be good."

That front seven is led by sophomore Greg Middleton (6'-3", 270), who leads the Big Ten and is tied for the national lead with five sacks so far this season. Their rush defense is ranked tenth nationally, giving up only 65.3 yards per game. True freshman Mitchell Evans (6'-3", 202) starts at strong safety, and he had two interceptions in his first game.

Indiana's defense isn't as big as some, but it is quick. And they put great pressure on opponents to neutralize their running attacks. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley explains their defensive philosophy.

"If they stay the course with what we saw, they're going to be similar to what we saw out of Syracuse. I think the difference with them is I think they're going to be really sound assignment oriented. They're not going to allow you to get many big plays. I think their goal is to force us to drive the ball down field with long drives and make us execute.

"They're more of a quarters two (defense), which is a style of middle field open. With quarters, the safeties are run pass guys. They're responsible for adding into the box on the run game, and when it's pass they play similar to what a cover two safety does (play deep to prevent long pass). We need to execute against both of what they show us."

The Illini must also be concerned about Indiana's special team play. Austin Starr's last second field goal in Memorial Stadium created the two point winning margin last year, and he returns. But by far the Illini's biggest concern is Thigpen on kick returns. Illinois lost sight of him once last game, and it helped the Hoosiers turn defeat into victory.

"As a coach you don't want to make him (Marcus Thigpen) hot, or give him the opportunity to be hot," explains Zook. "He has the opportunity to take it back against anybody. We had great coverage last year, except for the next-to-last play. We didn't kick the ball where we were supposed to kick the ball. Football is a team game. The kicker has to kick the ball where you have to have it. The cover team has to cover, and they've got to make tackles."

Some teams crumble with the loss of their head coach, but not Indiana. This does not surprise Zook.

"That doesn't surprise me at all. I've said this before, but every team has a blueprint. Coach Hoeppner made that blueprint and the coaching staff was able to stick to that plan. Sometimes as coaches we tend to think we're a little more important than we really are. The players bought into the plan long before the tragedy and just carried on."

The Hoosiers are on a roll, and their sights are set on a bowl game. They're also playing at home, which is bound to be to their advantage. Are they as good as their statistics, or did they pad their stats on some weak opposition? The Illini will find out for themselves Saturday.

One thing is for sure. Illinois will have to outscore Indiana to win. It could be a high-scoring affair, exciting to the end.

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