Game Keys: Norwell, D-Line Must Win Battle

Each week, the opponent gets tougher, the stakes get higher, for the surging Illinois football team. This week comes the toughest test so far in 5th ranked, undefeated Wisconsin. With a win comes a place in the polls for the first time in quite awhile. So how do the Illini do it? Here are some keys to victory Saturday.

NORWELL MUST BE A FORCE -- Without a doubt, this will be the most important game of Chris Norwell's career. At no time in his four years at Illinois have the Illini been in better position to make a statement in the league and nationally. But much of it is on his broad shoulders, as well as those of his running mate, David Linquist.

The Badgers want to pound the rock, pure and simple. Tyler Donovan is a good passer and he has good targets. But it all starts with the bruising running of P. J. Hill. Wisconsin wants to open holes for their physical tailback.

But if Norwell and Linquist hold the point of attack, and keep guards and the center off J. Leman and Antonio Steele, the Illini will hold up against the run. But the tackles cannot lose the battle. It is the most important key of the game.

NO BIG PLAYS -- It there has been an achilles heel for the Illini defense this season, that has been it. They have allowed big plays. That can't happen in this game.

The culprits have been Dere Hicks and one of the senior safeties caught in man coverage because of a blitz. Hicks has to play a little better; co-coordinators Dan Disch and Curt Mallory have to make sure they don't get a bad matchup. And the Illini have to not lose contain while rushing a quarterback.

Penn State's Anthony Morelli fumbled late in the game against Illinois to help the Illini win. But lost in that play was the fact that Morelli was about to scramble for a first down on fourth and 13 when the ball popped out and rolled behind the first down line. Illinois has to stop that.

A NEW OFFENSIVE THREAT -- Not sure who it is, but someone has to emerge. Suffice it to say after tape of last week's game is seen, Wisconsin has said Mendenhall and Benn will not beat them. I expect Benn to be double teamed at all times and a safety in the box to take away Mendenhall.

The could leave room for a tight end in the seam. It also could mean man coverage of Kyle Hudson and Jacob Willis and Joe Morgan. One of those guys has to make a big play.

JUICE HAS TO STEP IT UP -- I don't think this one is a secret. Although Juice Williams has done many good things in his sophomore season, Illinois has won without the threat of a vertical passing game. But I don't think they win this game without hitting a few passes down the field. Doesn't have to be a great number, but have to hit some.

In fact, it wouldn't surprise me to see offensive coordinator Mike Locksley attack down the field very early in the game to loosen up the run. And if Morgan or Hudson or anybody else gets loose, Juice has to hit them. Wisconsin is going to score some, Illinois has to be ready to score with them. That means passing the ball better.

'TEZ TIME -- I think you will see far more of Martez Wilson that at any time this season. Against a team that can move the ball a number of ways, Tez's ability to run, to play in space, to rush the passer or rundown plays in the open field will be critical here.

Don't be surprised if the split time between Steele and Tez is much more even than before. I'm not saying 50-50, but you will see No. 2 far more than before.

POUND THE PUNTS -- Big game for Anthony Santella. Sometime in this game, he is going to have to kick Illinois out of trouble. He has been very good at knocking punts out inside the 20 and sometimes inside the 10. But he has not done a great job of bailing Illinois out of trouble.

All in all, this is another game Illinois can win. Wisconsin is undefeated, but it is a shaky undefeated, and the Baders know that. They will not come in with the confidence you would expect an undefeated, highly ranked team to have.

But Illinois' players have to continue to understand how hard it was to get to this point. They have to play with a ridiculous sense of urgency, with that angry chip on their shoulder, as they have across the board this season. That can't change.

If it doesn't, it could be a big Saturday in Champaign.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories