Kellen Lewis vs. Isiah "Juice" Williams – They won't be tangling head-to-head, but a pair of dual-threat freshman quarterbacks will have a significant impact on the outcome of Saturday's game.
Williams is a 6-2, 220-pound true freshman who will be making his third career start this weekend. The Chicago native has completed 31-of-78 passes for 549 yards and four touchdowns while adding 157 yards rushing as well. He's coming off his biggest game of the year last week, completing 9-of-16 passes for 122 yards and rushing for another 101 yards on 17 carries in the Illini's 23-20 upset win at Michigan State. Lewis, meanwhile, is a redshirt freshman who is expected to make his fourth career start and his first on the road. He's 54-of-110 passing for 643 yards, and he's Indiana's second-leading rusher with 133 yards in five games.
While Williams has shown steady progress since taking over for Tim Brasic at the start of the Big Ten season, Lewis has been unable to recapture the magic he had in leading the Hoosiers to a come-from-behind victory at Ball State last month. In Indiana's last two games the IU offense has generated only one touchdown drive, and that came late in the fourth quarter against third-stringers in the 52-17 loss to Wisconsin.
If the Hoosiers are going to figure out a way to win their first Big Ten road game in nearly five years, Lewis is going to need to be the freshman quarterback that everyone is talking about Saturday. The Hoosiers haven't shown the ability to run the football with its quartet of tailbacks, meaning the offense goes as the quarterback goes. If Lewis can't display the sort of dual threat skills he used three weeks ago against Ball State, it will be a long afternoon in Champaign.
IU KR Marcus Thigpen/PR Lance Bennett vs. IL Special Teams- If there was ever a team that needed a lift from its special teams units, it's Indiana. The Hoosier offense has been spinning its wheels in recent weeks, and a big play – especially earn on – on a return could provide the sort of emotional lift Indiana desperately needs.
Indiana has a pair of return men who can do just that. Thigpen is averaging 38.4 yards/return on nine kickoff returns this season, including a pair that he's taken back for touchdowns. His speed makes him a huge threat every time he gets up a head of speed and is in the open field. Bennett, meanwhile, is averaging -0.8 yards on four punt returns this season, but has proven to be a dangerous threat as well throughout his IU career.
Illinois, meanwhile, hasn't been especially sound with its coverage units this season. In its first five games Illinois' foes are averaging 22.4 yards/kickoff return and 10.9 yards/punt return. Illinois kicker Jason Reda, though, has had 11 touchbacks on 18 kickoffs this season, so barring a blustery day at Illinois' Memorial Stadium, Thigpen might only get one or two chances to break a big return.
The best chance will likely come for Bennett. Illinois' punting game has been the league's worst, as Illinois punter Kyle Yelton is averaging only 37.5 yards/punt and has had one blocked and another returned for a touchdown. Despite the short kicks foes have still been able to spring a big return, and it will be up to Bennett to try to make a big play this weekend on special teams. The Hoosiers' 5-6 senior has generally been letting balls bounce and get downed instead of stepping up and trying to make something happen with a return, but he could produce the sort of big play this weekend IU desperately needs.
What's coming up:
On Monday – Five Numbers to Note
On Tuesday - Four Players to Know
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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