ILL LT J.J. Simmons/Andrew Burk vs. IU DE Ben Ishola –
Indiana's coaches don't know if Ishola will be going against Simmons or Burk, but the do know that they need more of a pass rush from the front four. Ishola might get his shot to make a big impact on Saturday's game as Simmons went down with a knee injury in Illinois' 35-7 loss at Iowa. MRI results revealed no ligament tear, but the Mishawaka, Ind., native is questionable for Saturday game.
Burk, meanwhile, is a junior who has played sparingly in his first two seasons, playing only four snaps as a sophomore. A native of Newburg, Ind., Burk was a player Indiana recruited three years ago before he wound up committing to Illinois. Whether it's Simmons or Burk, Ishola will have a chance to go against either a tackle who is hobbled with a bad knee or an untested junior. Ishola's speed should give either one fits, and he could provide some much needed pressure on quarterback Tim Brasic to take some of the pressure off the Indiana secondary. It's homecoming in Bloomington, but Ishola will do his best to make it an unpleasant return trip to Indiana for Simmons and/or Burk.
IU Special Teams vs. IL Special Teams –
Before the season, Illinois Coach Ron Zook told his team that he didn't want to lose any games because of special teams, and he wanted to win two games due to its special teams play. But in the early going, special teams have been a concern – if not a weakness - for both the Illini and the Hoosiers.
For Illinois, its first five games have included one blocked punt, two field goals blocked, one punt returned for a touchdown and one kickoff returned for a score. Indiana's groups haven't been quite that inept, but a punt return for a touchdown last week by Wisconsin, a couple of untimely penalties on returns against the Badgers along with some erratic placekicking this season has both Zook and IU Coach Terry Hoeppner waiting for something special from these groups.
In a game that figures to be tight – their last two meetings have been decided by a combined seven points – a big return or a special teams gaffe could be the turning point. One player to keep an eye on is Illinois kicker Jason Reda. After converting 8-of-9 field goals to start the season, Reda was 0-for-3 against Iowa. Each was his fault, and a pair of low kicks were blocked and a 21-yard chip shot went low and wide.
IU WR Jahkeen Gilmore vs. ILL CB Sharriff Abdullah –
Most of the attention has been centered on the exploits of IU's 6-7 wide receiver James Hardy, and rightfully so – he ranks among the Big Ten leaders in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. But Gilmore – who missed the Wisconsin game with a hamstring injury – is expected back and could be in for a big game against Abdullah.
First of all, Gilmore will have a significant size advantage – Abdullah is just 5-8 and 170 pounds, while is 6-0 and 215. Indiana's wideouts had some problems getting off the line of scrimmage against Wisconsin, but the physical Gilmore won't have that sort of problem with Abdullah. Secondly, Indiana figures to follow a gameplan similar to the one employed in its 38-14 win over Kentucky, where it relied on the running game and mixed in some intermediate routes in the passing game. Gilmore is IU's best wideout over the middle.
IU OL Adam Hines, Chris Mangiero and Brandon Hatcher vs. ILL DTs Ryan Matha and Chris Norwell –
The IU coaching staff looks to duplicate its effort in the 38-14 win over Kentucky three weeks ago, and that means running the ball between the tackles against an Illinois defense that has been extremely generous to opposing ground attacks.
In Illinois' last three games – all losses - it is surrendering an average of 323.7 yards per game and a mind-boggling 8.0 yards/carry. While Indiana's offense has relied a great deal on the arm of Blake Powers and the pass-catching abilities of James Hardy and his fellow wideouts, the team's best performance was obviously against Kentucky, when IU piled up 306 yards on the ground. To do that again, it will be up to the Hoosier front five to control the line of scrimmage.
Matha is one of only two seniors on the Illini defense, while Norwell is a big body at 6-6, 290. If the Hoosiers' interior linemen can control this duo, Indiana's tailbacks will be able to get into open space, and Illinois' tackling has been suspect to say the least this season. Some big plays in Indiana's running game appear to be strong possibilities this weekend.
What's coming up:
On Monday – Five Numbers to Note
On Tuesday - Four Key Matchups
On Wednesday – Three Big Concerns
On Thursday – Two Things IU Must Do to Win
On Friday – One Bold Prediction
Four Days and Counting
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