Illinois TB Rashard Mendenhall vs. IU LBs Adam McClurg, Geno Johnson and Will Patterson – The most well-known names for Ron Zook's offense might be quarterback Juice Williams and wide receiver Arrelius Benn, but Mendenhall is one of the biggest concerns for the Hoosier coaching staff.
Mendenhall enters the game averaging 107.3 yards/game, the top rusher on the second-leading rushing team in the Big Ten. After being limited to 33 yards in a season-opening loss to Missouri Mendenhall has bounced back with a 23-carry, 139-yard effort against Western Illinois and then a 16-carry, 150-yard, three-touchdown performance in last week's 41-20 win over Syracuse. It marked the first time in his career he's put together back-to-back 100-yard games. His effort against the Orange helped the Illini to a 378-yard rushing effort as a team, the school's best single-game performance against a I-A team in 32 years.
Mendenhall did miss practice Monday and Tuesday with an ankle sprain, but is expected to be ready for Saturday's game. He's get some help from freshman Troy Pollard and possibly sophomore Daniel Dufrene (if he's recovered from a similar ankle injury), but Mendenhall will be the horse that the Illinois offense will ride until Indiana shows it can stop him.
"We're also playing against what I think is a big time Big Ten back," IU Coach Bill Lynch said. "Mendenhall is a big, physical, strong, break tackles kind of back. And really the first of those kind of guys that we're going to play as we go through the Big Ten season."
It will be up to Johnson, McClurg and Patterson to plug the holes and keep Mendenhall from getting into the secondary. They've been good in the season's first three weeks, limiting teams to just 65.3 yards rushing/game. But this will also mark the first time they've gotten a steady dose of a team's top tailback. Indiana State's Tony West rushed only eight times (for 38 yards), Western Michigan's Brandon West carried it 12 times (for 51 yards) and Akron's Dennis Kennedy toted it nine times (for 15 yards). If Mendenhall is healthy, the IU linebackers can count on seeing him 20-25 times Saturday. If they can keep him to 75 yards or less, IU is in good shape. But if he gets 100-125 yards or more, it will be difficult for IU to post a third straight win over the Illini.
Marcus Thigpen vs. Arrelious Benn – These are a couple of big-play guys that could have a big impact on the outcome of Saturday's game – whether on offense or special teams.
Thigpen continues to be the Hoosiers No. 1 tailback for one primary reason – big play capabilities. His 4.5 yards/carry average is nearly two yards less than No. 2 tailback Demetrius McCray's 6.4, but the IU staff likes Thigpen's home run abilities. If he gets past the second level and into the secondary he can out-run people and turn 10 or 15 yard runs into touchdowns.
On special teams, Thigpen's three touchdown returns a year ago – including one against Illinois – has prompted foes to do whatever they can to keep the ball out of hands on kickoff returns. He's had only two returns in the first three games as teams have tried to directional kick, pooch kick…anything to keep him from getting a full head of steam headed up field. But it's a possibility that the IU coaching staff will try to scheme a way to get the ball in his hands somehow.
Benn, meanwhile, arrived in Champaign as one of the most electric offensive weapons in the freshman class. The second-ranked wide receiver recruit in the nation, Benn has started since day one and leads the Illini with 13 receptions for 152 yards. But he's yet to get in the end zone, and hasn't produced a play of longer than 28 yards.
That will change soon. Illinois Coach Ron Zook has talked about putting Benn back on kickoffs this week to help out an Illini kickoff return team that has averaged just 16.8 yards/return thus far. Benn has also carried the ball 10 times, an unusually large number of carries for a wide receiver. That's nearly a rush per quarter for the Illini wideout, so Indiana can count on seeing Benn get a handoff or two from Juice Williams as well.
What's coming up:
On Monday – Five Numbers to Note
On Tuesday - Four Names to Know
On Wednesday – Three Big Concerns
On Thursday – Two Key Match-Ups
On Friday – One Bold Prediction
ILLINOIS: Two Days and Counting
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