Keys To Victory: Juice and the Early Moments

It looms as a possible season-defining game for Illinois, one on the road in which they will be a prohibitive underdog. Yet, the kind of game in which Ron Zook teams have played very well in the past. To do so again, there are some significant keys to victory. Key players, key areas. A list of those includes:

STAY IN IT EARLY -- This is the most important key, by far. Penn State will be jacked out of their minds for so many reasons -- national TV, first game anyone is watching, night home game, revenge against the team that beat them last year, last year's darlings of the Big Ten. And on and on.

In fact, you hope that enthusiasm works against them some, that they are too hyped, which can happen. Still, you have to match their energy, only with more discipline. Because if Penn State goes up 14-0 that will only fuel the momentum. Then there is trouble. Somehow, Illinois has to survive the early storm.

ACCURATE PASSING -- Yes, this always matters. But maybe more in this game than any all year long. As good as Penn State is, there will be some open receivers -- the Nittany Lions have replaced some folks in the back seven and Illinois' receivers are a much improved lot. And this is the current culture of college football -- receivers get open.

But you can't say it any more clearly -- Juice Williams has to hit them. For a myriad of reasons. Obviously, to move the ball and score. I have a hunch it's going to take some points to win this one, I don't see 17-13.

But almost as importantly, the Illini have to keep the ball and running won't be easy. A ball control passing game will neutralize the pass rush and open up the run. It also keeps Penn State's offense on the sideline. The longer you wait to go play, in front of your fans, the more likely you will be antsy. This is so critical -- Juice has to hit the open guy.

The best chance this team had against powerful Missouri was when the passing game found a rhythm. With Jeff Cumberland back, that now should be easier. It is a necessity.

TAKE AWAY THE MID-RANGE PASS -- Illinois has been pretty good at not getting beat over the top -- Vontae Davis and Dere Hicks are hard to get behind. And they will take their chances with swing passes and screens. Where the Illini has been vulnerable is the 15-yard pass. The out, the crossing pattern, the seam route.

Now does that improve? Linebackers have to play better in space, better reactions, better instincts. Safeties have to react faster. The line has to affect quarterback Darryl Clark. And coaches have to devise something that can disrupt Penn State's rhythm, which to this point, has been very good.

SOLID SPECIAL TEAMS -- Sounds like coachspeak, I know, but it really matters. Matt Eller has to make field goal attempts if he gets a shot, as he has so far. Anthony Santella can't shank one and can't drill a low line drive right to Derrick Williams. The Illini has to cover.

I'm not sure this is a game Illinois can win if Penn State brings one back.

FINALLY, DON'T GET SPOOKED -- By now, this Illinois team has faced plenty of adversity. Missouri has been way up on them twice and both times they roared back. Southern Cal, maybe the best team in the nation at the end of last year, got a big lead but Illinois didn't back down.

Penn State, Wisconsin, Ohio State all made frenzied runs when Illinois had leads last year, but the Illini fought them off.

Stay composed, understand something bad always happens at some point in all games and how you manage and deal with that often determines the winner. That is the final key. And perhaps the most important.

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