The Illinois football team is a decided underdog against the Missouri Tigers in St. Louis Saturday. They were trounced there last year on their way to a frustrating 3-9 season. There are several reasons for their underdog role, but the Illini don't see it that way.
First of all, the Illini no longer have a target on their backs. Teams played their best against them the last two years after Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn led them to the Rose Bowl in 2007. The Illini expected to win but were perhaps not as hungry to win the past two seasons.
Now, the Illini have nothing to lose. They are the hunter, trying to prove themselves to the world. Like 2007, they may not be taken seriously by their opponents. They are tired of losing, tired of being battered in the media and ridiculed by fans. They want to prove themselves against a talented opponent on national television. They will play with a nothing-to-lose attitude.
At the same time, Mizzou might lack proper respect for its opponent. The Tigers won easily last year, and the Illini have a new quarterback and possible holes in the secondary. Perhaps they will take the Illini lightly.
Illinois lost players to graduation, the NFL, academic deficiencies and injuries, but it may have gained chemistry in the process. The remaining squad has more togetherness than anytime since 2007.
The players pull for each other and sacrifice themselves for the sake of the team. This may not help them win against superior foes, but they will likely continue the fight to the end of the game. Win or lose, they hope to make Illini Nation proud of their effort.
They also have the advantage of new offensive and defensive coordinators, making them somewhat an unknown to Missouri coaches. The Illini know generally what the Tigers are planning, but MU has no film to watch on the new Illini team.
Mizzou will study Paul Petrino's offenses from Louisville and Arkansas, and it has competed against Vic Koenning's defense at Kansas State. But it hasn't seen the Illini's unique adaptation of those new schemes. This may give the Illini an advantage, especially early in the game.
There is talent on the Illini team. Running back and wide receiver are stocked with quality, and the offensive line is competent. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is playing his first varsity game, but he has tremendous potential. Once he gets a few plays under his belt, he might provide a worthy obstacle for Missouri's defense.
The Illini defense enjoys the return of middle linebacker Martez Wilson after a year's absence due to injury, and players like Corey Liuget, Clay Nurse, Ian Thomas, and Tavon Wilson have been through the wars and know what to expect. The Illini punting game with Anthony Santella is strong, and field goals are in the capable hands of Derek Dimke.
However, the Illini defensive secondary is one of several reasons prognosticators favor Missouri. The Illini will be missing three potential starters in the defensive backfield, and the Tigers have a star quarterback in Blaine Gabbert to pick them apart. The Illini may need to outscore Mizzou to win.
Depth is an issue for the Illini at some positions, and experience is lacking in places as well. Youngsters will need to overcome the odds and first game jitters to have a chance. Missouri has confidence from frequent success, something the Illini need desperately.
The Tigers have dominated physically on the field in past encounters, even when scores appeared close. They will hit hard and play aggressively. The Illini need all the perseverence and inner fortitude they can muster to counter the onslaught provided by the talented Tigers.
The Illini have a chance in this one, but few if any odds makers will concur. It may require a favorable bounce of the ball or two to even the odds, something lacking the past two seasons for the Illini. If they can somehow have early success and make a game of it, anything is possible.
Several Illini offered their observations prior to the intersectional opener. A sample of their thoughts follows:
* Illinois head coach Ron Zook on the Missouri offense:
"I think what they do is what they do. They are going to throw the football. Gabbert is a great quarterback, and he has done a great job. He could have won the Heisman if he played every game last year like he did against us, so there is no reason to think that he is not going to come back and have the same year."
* Illini defensive line coach Keith Gilmore on applying pressure to Gabbert despite a strong Tiger offensive line and numerous quick passes:
"First of all, we're just going to be relentless. We've just got to get after the passer. We've got some things in place to put a little pressure on him, blitzes and a little bit of heat that way. But our guys just need to stay in their pass rush lanes and play hard.
"And I need to make sure I get a good rotation going to have guys in there who aren't winded and can stay after him. The biggest thing in the secondary is that we make him have to pat the ball a little bit and not go to his first reads. At that point we can get some pressure."
* Martez Wilson on whether the Tigers will pick on Illini inexperience in the secondary:
"Yeah, I do. If I was the coach I would do the same thing. But I don't think they'll get too much out of their game plan, which is to out scheme you. We just have to adjust to things they do to get them out of their schemes.
"I'm very tired of losing to Missouri. This is my fourth time playing them, and we definitely don't want to lose. It would feel great (to win). Starting the season 1-0 is a confidence-builder. We're definitely coming in with intentions to dominate."
On wanting to make up for lost time after a year on the sidelines with neck surgery:
"I'm able to showcase my talent once again. It just happens to be the first game of the year. This was the last game I played, so this game means a lot to me. It gives me a chance to show the world, my coaches and teammates, that I am ready to step up and be a leader."
* Tavon Wilson on overcoming the loss of secondary personnel:
"We have to deal with it and regroup to play a great football team this weekend. We can't control what other people think. We just focus on us. We'll just try to bring everybody together.
"They're a good football team. They've obviously got us the past few years, but we're gonna compete, go hard and get after them. They probably will test us back there. We'll be ready for it."
* Scheelhaase on whether he expects the Tiger defense to come after him:
"Yeah, I would. I welcome that. We know a lot of things that we can do whether they come after us or sit back. I say throw it all at me. I'm excited about our game plan.
"I'm not so much worried about what they're gonna do. I think after the first or second quarter we're gonna get a better idea of their game plan. We're gonna focus on what we can do and then adjust to what they are doing against us."
* Mikel Leshoure on the Illini offense:
"We're gonna do a lot more than people think. The schemes we have going in, and the people we have are doing a good job. We'll be all right.
"We've just got to attack them. Coach emphasizes the running backs. We want to attack their safeties. The key to winning the game is who is gonna quit first. He just wants us to keep pounding them. Overall, I just think we have to run the ball hard and set the tone."
On whether defensive problems put more pressure on the offense to score:
"I definitely don't think it puts more pressure on us. We're gonna go out and do what we have to do. Putting up numbers is something we planned on doing before we found out about the defensive situation."
On any loss of team confidence after the injury problems and the move of three offensive players to defense:
"Definitely not. I think the guys stepped up. They're very unselfish guys. They're learning new positions and are just going with it. The defense looks and feels like it's getting better, and they're confident in what the coaching staff is doing. I think they'll do all right.
"I definitely think the team chemistry's a lot stronger. We don't have any one guy, and the coaches aren't forcing the ball to any specific people. If someone goes down, we've still got players. We can come in and keep it moving. Hopefully no one gets hurt or goes down, but it'll be a different game this year.
"I definitely think the guys feel we have something to prove."
* Chris Willett, former Missouri walkon who played against the Illini last year but who is now slated to see time at fullback and on special teams for the Illini:
"There's no secrets. Each team knows the other. We've played each other in years past. It's gonna be a great football game."