The Indiana Hoosiers won their first three games and have lost their last three. But a closer analysis shows they played Michigan close in the Big House and battled Ohio State before losing at home. After those intense physical and emotional struggles, they predictably played flat at Virginia and got blown out.
There is no doubt they will be fired up to play Illinois. First of all, it is their Homecoming. Also, they want to get the bad taste from the Virginia game out of their mouths and prove to their fans they are a quality team. They were embarrassed in Champaign last year and have set this game as a must win. And they see Illinois as a beatable opponent.
Indiana's offense is potent. Quarterback Ben Chappell is completing 64% of his passes and ranks fifth in the Big 10 with over 221 yards per game. Sophomore receiver Tandon Doss has become a star for the Hoosiers, ranking third in the Big 10 with 6.83 receptions per game and doing a good job on reverses.
Mitchell Evans plays receiver, but he was recruited as a quarterback. Replacing Chappell at times in a Wildcat formation, Evans can both run and pass. He puts extra pressure on defenses. And redshirt freshman Darius Willis has taken charge of a crowded running back corps when healthy. He is averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
Illinois coach Ron Zook is wary of the Indiana offense.
"This is an offense that does present some problems. They had Michigan down. They had a whole bunch of yards against Michigan in Ann Arbor. It's gonna be a heck of a ball game."
They also threw for over 200 yards against Ohio State, and even USC didn't do that. IU coach Bill Lynch knows his team is an underdog, so he throws out all stops and becomes extremely creative.
"They have a nice scheme, and they run it extremely well," Zook relates. "They have the Wildcat formation using number five, Evans, a former high school quarterback that is now a receiver. He does a nice job. Everybody wants to talk about the Wildcat formation, and they do it and do it well."
Senior cornerback Dere Hicks describes the nature of the Indiana offense.
"They run a pistol-type offense with the option. They bring a guy in who was a quarterback in high school but plays receiver now. They have a good offense, and we have a lot to prepare for this week."
Hicks doesn't take stock in the Virginia loss. He knows a number of people on the Virginia team, and he realizes the Hoosiers had a tough time facing a nonconference game during the Big 10 season.
"I think it is tough to play an out-of-conference opponent during the season because when you're used to playing Big 10 guys, you're used to their schemes and what they run. So it was pretty tough for them to go out of conference this time of year."
Defensively, Indiana poses problems as well. They have tremendous experience at the ends in Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton. Kirlew is presently second in the Big 10 in sacks. Both are considered All-American candidates. But Illini senior center Eric Block has great respect for tackles Larry Black, Jr. and freshman Adam Replogle as well.
"They've got two guys inside that are big, strong defensive tackles. Off the edge, they've got a lot of speed. They're pretty basic up front. It's your basic 4-3 defense, and they do it well. They don't blitz a ton."
Linebackers Will Patterson, Matt Mayberry and Tyler Replogle provide experience and talent. They are considered the strength of the defense.
"The linebackers really hit the holes downhill," Block states. "There are a lot of things we have to prepare for, especially any kind of combination block. We've got to be ready to come off the linebackers in a hurry. They play good defense."
Cornerback Ray Fisher moved from receiver to bolster the secondary, which is led by senior ball hawking safety Austin Thomas. Fisher leads the Big Ten in kickoff returns.
Illinois needs to play a mistake-free game to win. They will have to give their best since the Hoosiers will give them their best. The Illini will benefit from Arrelious Benn being 100% this week. Zook plans to keep him on kickoffs despite his mild concussion on a kickoff last week.
"He goes in there on opening kickoff and tries to make something happen and comes down and hits his head on the ground. We can't go in there scared. We have to go in there and try to be the best that we can be. Obviously, with him back there it gives us the opportunity to be pretty good."
The Illini must win this game, but the main emphasis is on relaxing and having fun. The talent is there, and it will manifest if they play to enjoy themselves according to running back Mikel Leshoure.
"It's a big game for us. It's a game we need to come out and get back on our feet and turn things around. Our coaches have told us to not emphasize the win so much, just go out and play."
As of Friday, Zook has not named a starting quarterback. Juice Williams came out of the Michigan State game with more confidence, but both he and Eddie McGee may play Saturday. Williams realizes Indiana will copy what other teams have done defensively, and he hopes the Illini have been learning how to exploit those tendencies.
"I think Indiana will do some similar things to what other defenses have been trying to do to us coverage wise. I think they'll try to put pressure on the quarterback, press the receivers a little bit, try to get turnovers. We can't beat ourselves. We've got to come out and be prepared and execute."
McGee has respect for Indiana, but like the others believes it all comes down to Illinois living up to its potential.
"Indiana is a good opponent. We've just got to come prepared. There's no doubt in my mind we can win this game. I always believe we'll win. I'm taking nothing away from Indiana, they're a great team. We've just got to come in and execute like we're supposed to."