Illinois is treating its game with Cincinnati as its bowl game. It has everything to gain and nothing to lose as it is a heavy underdog. After a bye week, the Illini have healed their wounds and regained their commitment to ending the season on a positive note according to head coach Ron Zook.
"Obviously, this is a great challenge. We are facing a great football team and a well-coached football team. A team that is playing together, playing hard and making a lot of things happen. Our players have showed us in the last two weeks that they are excited about this opportunity. It's a game that everyone is going to be watching with the implications for the BCS, so it draws a lot of attention in that regard.
"We had a very good two weeks of practice. I was really impressed with the attitude they came back with. I've been very, very impressed, which tells us that these guys are excited to play this football team."
Cincinnati is an offensive juggernaut. They piled up 711 yards against Connecticut while their starting quarterback was injured. They are outstanding in all phases of the game.
Quarterback Tony Pike (6'-6", 225) will start after missing four games with an injury to his nonthrowing arm. He is a tremendous passer. Zach Colleros (6'-0", 209) was amazing in Pike's absense and displayed running mobility in addition to efficient passing. It is a two-headed monster that will be tough for the Illini to defend.
"They're a little bit different from the standpoint the big tall kid, Tony Pike, will throw the football. He can throw it. Not that the other kids can't, Zach and Chazz (Anderson) both can, but they're more the runners. Tony is going to sit in and throw it, although he can run, but when you see the other ones in there you'll see more of the zone read option stuff."
Co-defensive coordinator Curt Mallory expands on Cincinnati's offense.
"Yeah, it starts with the quarterbacks. Both their quarterbacks have done a phenomenal job this year. They kind of make the thing go. They take care of the football extremely well, they don't throw a lot of picks, and they're hard to get to.
"With Pike, they're gonna get the ball out quick. They're gonna spread you out. They want to get the ball out to the perimeter in a hurry, whether it's on the quick game or the running game. They've done a nice job of getting the ball to the playmakers.
"With Colleros, you're gonna see a little bit more of the run game and making plays with the quarterback. He really does a great job of not only throwing the ball but running the football."
Illini defensive tackle Josh Brent knows his defense will have its hands full with the quarterbacks.
"Tony Pike is probably one of the best passers out there. His efficiency is great. He puts the ball in his receivers' hands well. Colleros is a dual threat, probably moreso running than throwing. He's definitely more than a capable passer. They definitely pose two great threats."
Mallory reminds there is much more to the Bearcat offense than the quarterbacks.
"Of course, they have a surrounding cast with the wide receiver corps that's very, very good. They'll have a lot of quick passes and then take their chances downfield off of play action.
"They've got a nice running back Isaiah Pead (5'-10", 193) who's done a great job. He's a quick slasher. And they'll bring in (Jacob) Ramsey (6'-0", 216), who will get downhill in a hurry. They've got a way of moving the ball not only throwing the ball but running the ball as well."
Pead has rushed for an average of 101.8 yards in his last four games. For the season, he has 687 yards and 8 touchdowns.
The Bearcat receivers are fast and will put great pressure on the Illinois secondary. Mardy Ginyard (6'-1", 187)leads the Big East Conference in total receiving yards. He has caught 68 passes for 930 yards and 8 touchdowns. He was the Big East Special Teams Player of the Year last season with his punt and kick returns, and he ranks sixth nationally in 2009 with 180.1 all-purpose yards.
Armon Binns (6'-4", 200) has added 8 more touchdowns among his 44 catches for 693 yards. Other receiving options include D.J. Woods, Marcus Barnett, Charley Howard, Jamar Howard and tight end Kazeem Alli (6'-4", 258).
The offensive line is mature and experienced. The five starters have 117 starts between them. They are led by left tackle Jeff Linkenbach (6'-6", 311). He has 41 straight starts and was named a midseason All-American by SI.com.
Cincinnati has a potent kicking game also. Jacob Rogers has hit 11 of 16 field goal attempts while averagine 41.3 on punts. To top it all off, the Bearcats lead the nation in fewest turnovers with 6 for the entire season. They have no apparent weaknesses on offense.
The Bearcat defense lost 10 starters from 2008, and they have given up a lot of points. But Zook reminds they still have experience and quality.
"You don't go undefeated and not have a pretty good defense. They've gone with the 3-4, which is a little bit unique. They are not a big pressure team, but they will pressure you.
"There are a lot of things that you have to be prepared for since it is a unique defense. Normally, everyone sees the 3-4 in the third down passing situations. They actually line up in a 3-4 and play a multiple front, multiple coverage. There is a lot of moving around and motion. Like I said, you don't go undefeated without a pretty good defense and special teams."
Illini offensive lineman Jon Asamoah, named second team All-Big 10, knows he and his mates will be in for a battle.
"They have a good defense. They're real active and real aggressive. We have to stay on top of them."
Cincinnati's defense is led by linebackers Andre Revels (6'-0", 221) and J.K. Schaffer (6'-1", 223). They lead the nation in tackles for loss (88) and are third in sacks (32). Defensive tackle Alex Daniels (6'-4", 259) has 5.5 sacks, and defensive end Ricardo Mathews (6'-3", 294) has 9.5 TFL.
Juice Williams is expected to start at quarterback for the Illini, although Jacob Charest is likely to receive playing time. Much will depend on whether Williams is sufficiently recovered from a high ankle sprain to lead an effective running game.
Otherwise, the Illini are as healthy as can be expected for late in the season. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui is back to full strength after sitting out several games with a high ankle sprain. Only safety Donsay Hardeman appears unable to go Friday.
Zook was hired for his first job as a defensive coordinator at Cincinnati, and he married his wife in Cincinnati. He knows the school and the program. He believes the Illini have a chance.
"Obviously, this is a great challenge. We are facing a great football team and a well-coached football team. A team that is playing together, playing hard and making a lot of things happen.
"Our players have showed us in the last two weeks that they are excited about this opportunity. It's a game that everyone is going to be watching with the implications for the BCS, so it draws a lot of attention in that regard."
Brent loves the challenge.
"It's a challenge. Top five team, they're undefeated, probably the best passing in the nation judging from the statistics. It's something you look forward to as a competitor. You want to play teams like this.
"We're playing the day after Thanksgiving on ABC, people are gonna be watching. We've got a lot to prove. We want to prove we can win a game like this."
"It's pretty cool. It's a chance to play a team we haven't played before. And they're real good, #5. It's what you ask for. We had some days to get ready for it, watch some football and rest up. Here's a chance to knock them off."
Senior receiver Chris Duvalt believes there will be openings for the Illini offense to make plays and score at least as often as the Bearcats.
"I'm real excited about going against Cincinnati's defense. We get the chance to go out there and show our talents, show what we should have done all year, against one of the top teams in the nation."
Cincinnati is on a roll. When a team wins early in the season, it gains momentum and confidence that sustains it the rest of the season. It will be a difficult challenge for the Illini to stop that runaway train and pull the upset. But if they can, it will help make up for an otherwise frustrating season.