Shortly after Illinois finished polishing off Purdue 44-10 last Saturday, Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning sat in a chair looking weary.
Apparently he woke up at 4 a.m. that day worried whether he had prepared his team sufficiently for the Boilermakers. Then Koenning was asked about Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Let's just say he didn't look any less weary.
"I'll worry about that guy tomorrow," Koenning said.
Suffice it to say Koenning has worried about Robinson for several days straight as Illinois preps for its trip to Ann Arbor on Saturday. Considering the inventive schemes he trots out week after week, the Illini will have something special planned for the nation's No. 2 rusher (160.9 ypg) and No. 2 player in total offense (349.5 ypg). Here are the generalities, though, that have sustained the Illini all year.
"It's real important for our guys to play fast," Koenning said. "We've got to understand we can't let off. At all."
At the same time, it's not just the defense's job to keep Robinson in check. Illinois' offense has a stake in this.
"(We're) playing arguably one of the best players in the country," head coach Ron Zook said. "A guy that every time he touches the ball, he takes your breath. So it's going to be a great, great challenge for our defense. A lot of people ask, 'Well, how do you stop him?' I don't know that you stop him. I think what you try to do is you try to keep the ball away from him -- try to keep him on the bench. That's one of the things our offense has done a pretty good job of."
Indeed, Illinois ranks 24th nationally in time of possession with an average of 31 minutes, 34 seconds per game. That number is deceptively small because the Illini held the ball for just 25 minutes against Indiana on Oct. 23 when the defense returned two interceptions for scores, blocked a punt for a safety and blocked another to set up a brief drive for a field goal.
--For the second week in a row, Illinois can claim it has faced the nation's toughest schedule according to the NCAA. The Illini's opponents have won 72.4 percent of their games (42-16) against Division I teams not named Illinois. The Illini's only losses came against the Nos. 11, 12 and 14 teams in the current BCS standings, which explains why Illinois (5-3) could creep into the BCS Top 25 with a win at Michigan this week.
--Big Ten coaches aren't dummies. After watching Illinois junior tailback Mikel Leshoure tie the modern-era school record with four consecutive 100-yard games -- all against non-conference foes -- the league has cracked down on Illinois' No. 1 skill player. In five Big Ten games, Leshoure is averaging 20 carries and 76.4 yards with three touchdowns. He averaged 17.3 carries and 145.5 yards with five TDs in those four straight 100-yard efforts.
SERIES HISTORY: Michigan leads Illinois 66-23-2 (last meeting, 2009, 38-13 Illinois).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Purdue decided RB Mikel Leshoure held the key to Illinois' multiple attack, so the Boilermakers loaded the box and swarmed Leshoure whenever there was a chance he might touch the ball. It was a decent plan that smothered Leshoure, but it left everything else open, and redshirt QB Nathan Scheelhaase has begun to figure out how to make teams pay. In Illinois' last two games, Scheelhaase hit 29 of 41 passes for 318 yards and six touchdowns while rushing for 163 yards. Part of his learning curve has been improving his ability to go all the way through his progressions, which has allowed him to hook up with more receivers each week.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Illinois ranks 12th nationally in scoring defense (16.8 ppg) and 15th in total yards allowed (301.4 ypg) -- an amazing turnaround that's a tribute to some vastly improved veterans (DT Corey Liuget, MLB Martez Wilson, SLB Nate Bussey, CB Travon Bellamy) and some rapidly learning newcomers (CB Justin Green, DT Akeem Spence and S Trulon Henry). The Illini offer a million looks and they prefer to be on the attack, but they might need to curb their aggressiveness this week in order to keep Denard Robinson in their sights.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think it's good for Nathan. Personally, I think every guy on the offense, their goal should be to be the best player in the country at their position. When we get guys competing to be that, that's when you get special. I'm all for that. I want them to get every award they can. Then, you win more as a team." -- Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, to the Champaign News-Gazette, about QB Nathan Scheelhaase and the rest of his players.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Illinois at Michigan, Nov. 6 -- In the modern era, there's no football team that Illinois fans have loved to hate more than Michigan. Much of it has to do with the Illini's utter inability to beat the Wolverines from 1967-82 (as well as 2000-07), but things are changing. With 25-point victories each of the last two years, Illinois is shooting for its first three-game winning streak in this series since 1950-53.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Illinois' nationally ranked defense has faced pass-happy quarterbacks and held them down. It has faced run-first offenses and snuffed them out. But Illinois' toughest challenges have come from teams with true dual-threat quarterbacks: Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor and Northern Illinois' Chandler Harnish. Of course, Michigan's Denard Robinson is on a different level than those guys. The Illini have a decent number of speedsters on defense -- think MLB Martez Wilson, OLB Nate Bussey, Bandit Michael Buchanan and CB Justin Green -- and ought to be able to keep Robinson below his averages.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Nathan Scheelhaase -- The redshirt freshman earned his first Big Ten offensive player of the week honor after completing 80 percent of his passes for 195 yards and four TDs against Purdue. He also rushed for 118 yards. He might not yet be Juice Williams -- the ex-Illinois QB who set the Michigan Stadium single-game total-offense record the last time the Illini hit Ann Arbor -- but he's making the right calls and executing the right options the majority of the time.
RB Mikel Leshoure -- Two years ago, running back Rashard Mendenhall's overwhelming presence attracted defenses and allowed the quarterback more room to make plays. That's exactly how this season is starting to play out for the Illini. Leshoure rushed for a season-low 23 yards on 15 carries last week, but Scheelhaase picked it up with a career-high 313 total yards. Leshoure still used his power for two 1-yard TD runs and also worked free for a TD reception.
MLB Martez Wilson -- Michigan QB Denard Robinson is an amazing athlete, but Wilson is pretty special himself. He's always had the speed and power to hunt down elite players, but now Wilson is acquiring the experience and acumen that gives him a half-step head start on catching his prey. Wilson owns a team-high 68 tackles, which ranks fifth in the Big Ten. He should have intercepted a pass last week and blocked a punt the week before.
--Senior WR Jarred Fayson (leg) and second-string RB Jason Ford (sprained ankle) didn't play against Purdue, but they're expected to be ready to roll for Michigan.
--Starting safety Supo Sanni (ruptured right Achilles tendon) is out for the year. The junior will take a redshirt and have two years of eligibility remaining. Junior offensive tackle Corey Lewis, who was on target to start at strong tackle before wrecking his knee in spring ball, also will have two years of eligibility after taking his redshirt season.
The TSX Files: Illinois Midweek
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