Get off the field on 3rd Down – If and when the Illinois offense gets into a rhythm, it can wear on a defense. Illinois Coach Ron Zook often uses a no-huddle attack, which makes it difficult for defenses to rotate players in and out. It throws a variety of offensive sets and looks at a defense, which can get the defense on its heels at times. That can wear on a defense over the course of a game, particularly when the Illini are able to put together long, sustained drives.
That's what happened in the first half against Cal, a top-20 team that Illinois led, 17-7, at halftime before falling 35-20. Illinois controlled the ball for nearly 22 minutes in the first half of that contest, and was an eye-opening 6-of-7 on 3rd down conversions in the first two quarters. Illinois' first two drives (one of 14 plays, the second of 16) each took more than six minutes off the clock, and each resulted in a one-yard touchdown run.
When faced with third and long, Illinois doesn't have a legitimate down-the-field threat at wide receiver, so quarterback Tim Brasic will look to get the ball to his running backs out of the backfield, and he can also scramble for first downs as well if no one gets open downfield.
Zook wants to do everything he can to not only wear down the Hoosier defenders, but also keep his suspect defensive unit off the field. Defensively, Illinois is playing a handful of unproven, untested youngsters who will have their hands full trying to stop Chris Taylor on the ground and Blake Powers through the air. Zook wants to minimize the amount of they're on the field by maximizing his offensive opportunities on 3rd down.
Avoid a Repeat of Wisconsin Mistakes – It was obvious what ruined Indiana's chances of an upset in Madison – turnovers, special teams gaffes and penalties. If Illinois is going to upset the Hoosiers, they'll be counting on IU having letdowns in those areas again.
The biggest area of concern is turnovers. A pair of interceptions and a pair of fumbles certainly didn't help Indiana's cause against the Badgers, and it's those types of miscues that Illinois will be relying on for success against Indiana. Why? Because Illinois hasn't shown the ability to stop anyone, on the ground or through the air. Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten in rushing defense (232.2 yards/game) and surrenders a staggering 6.7 yards/carry. Through the air, Illinois gives up 236.6 yards/contest, and it ranks last in the conference in pass defense efficiency.
The Illini haven't generated a pass rush (a Big Ten-worst three sacks in five games), haven't been able to create turnovers (a Big Ten-low two interceptions) and haven't been able to get off the field (opponents convert 41% of their 3rd down conversions). If Illinois' defense can't stop you, it's only hope is that the offense stops itself with turnovers and ill-timed penalties.
Special teams is another area that the Hoosiers have to hold their own in. While Illinois hasn't produced a big play in the return game, tailbacks Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey handle their returns on both kickoffs and punts, and are capable to turning the tide of a game with a big play on special teams. Brandon Williams did it to Indiana last week, with a 63-yard punt return for a score that gave the Badgers a 24-7 lead. Indiana doesn't necessarily need to win this phase of the game to knock off the Illini, but it can't be dominated like it was a week ago.
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
Two Days and Counting...
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