Bloomington, Ind. – The Hoosiers' path to a postseason bowl berth goes one of two ways after Saturday.
If Indiana (3-0) handles the Illini (2-1), Coach Bill Lynch's team goes to 4-0 for the first time since 1990 and moves within two wins of bowl eligibility. With a November match-up looming against Ball State, the Hoosiers would likely need to win only one out of the seven remaining Big Ten games to earn a postseason invite.
If the Hoosiers fall to the Illini, though, the task becomes much more daunting. While there are plenty of winnable games on the schedule such as Minnesota at home and Northwestern on the road, the margin for error becomes much more slight. In addition, the confidence built by the 3-0 start would be dashed by losing at home to a team that's 2-30 in league play over the last four years.
The bottom line is this – there's as much riding on this game as any in recent memory for the IU program.
"It would be big to get this win, especially going into the Big Ten," said IU defensive end Greg Middleton. "If we get off to a 4-0 start, we can carry that momentum for the rest of the season. We haven't been 4-0 here for a long time. It would do a lot for our confidence."
That win, though, won't come easily.
While the record hasn't necessarily born it out, Illinois is much improved under fourth-year coach Ron Zook. In 2005 the Illini went 2-9 overall and 0-8 in the Big Ten, losing every conference game by at least 17. That included a 23-point loss to the Hoosiers in Bloomington. In 2006 Illinois went just 2-10 and 1-7 in the Big Ten, but all seven of those losses came by 17 points or less. The Illini lost by only six at Wisconsin and seven at home to Ohio State, a pair of teams that finished the regular season ranked in the top-five in the nation.
Like the Hoosiers, Illinois has visions of getting to the postseason, and it has circled this game as well as means by which to achieve that goal.
"They're a program that's been in the top 10 in recruiting classes the last three years," said IU Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada. "They are playing well, they have top tackler in the Big Ten (J. Leman), and he's making plays all over the field. It will be a real challenge for us. Certainly the best defense we've played."
But Indiana presents its own set of problems for the Illini. They went up against a mobile, dual-threat quarterback in week one in Missouri's Daniel Chase, and all he did was scorch them for 359 yards and three touchdowns on 37-of-54 passing in the Tigers' 40-34 win.
"We faced a very good quarterback in the first game but (Indiana's) quarterback adds another dimension," Zook said this week. "A running quarterback adds a whole new dimension to the defense. The fact that their quarterback leads their team in rushing tells you the problems they will present to our defense."
While there's plenty for both teams to be concerned about, there's also plenty of reasons for both to believe they can come out with a win and take a giant step toward the postseason.
"It's a Big Ten game and a very important game for both programs," Zook said.
HoosierNation.com's Prediction: Look for a high-scoring game on Saturday. Red zone efficiency and a big play on special teams could be the difference in a game that figures to be hotly contested until the closing minutes. Last year's game came down to a last-second field goal by IU's Austin Starr, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that this year's game could be every bit as close. My pick - Indiana 38, Illinois 33
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 Matchups
On Friday – One Bold Prediction
ILLINOIS: One Day and Counting
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