Illinois Preview

The second game of the Karl Dorrell era brings the Illinois Fighting Illini to the Rose Bowl. A bit suspect after two games, Illinois will face a UCLA team with superior talent that wants to prove itself...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS:

 

-- UCLA is 4-5 all-time against Illinois, with UCLA winning the last game they played in the Rose Bowl -- the 1984 Rose Bowl. In that game, which UCLA won  45-9, current UCLA head coach Karl Dorrell caught two touchdown passes.

 

-- Illinois Head Coach Ron Turner is in his seventh season at Illinois, with a record of 39-43.  He earned Big Ten Coach of the year in 2001 after leading Illinois to the Big Ten championship and the Nokia Sugar Bowl. It was the Illini's first league championship since 1990.

 

-- In 2002, Illinois was 5-7 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten, which tied them for fifth.

 

-- Illinois is currently 1-1. They lost to Missouri in their season opener, 15-22, then beat Illinois State last week, 49-22.

 

-- Illinois, in its first two games, is out-scoring opponents 24-7 in the first quarter.

 

-- Losing to Colorado last week, it's the first time since 1997 the Bruins have lost their season opener. In that 1997 season, UCLA then lost to Tennessee in its second game, at home, then won ten games in a row to finish 10-2.  The winning streak continued through the 1998 season and last 20 games.

 

-- UCLA has won five straight home openers.

 

-- UCLA has won 10 of its last 12 non-conference games dating back to 1999. Both losses were to Colorado – last season and last week.

 

-- Kickoff is 5:00. The game will be televised on a regional basis by ABC Sports. Keith Jackson and Dan Fouts will call the action.

 

ILLINOIS' OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

 

While many like to generalize that all Big Ten teams are pound-the-ball-up-the-middle offenses, Illinois, under Turner, truly isn't.  Turner has instituted a pro-style offense, based on a ball-control passing game, and it's probably the most complex in the conference. It lines up mostly in a two-back, two-wideout set, but can also, at times, employ up to four receivers.   Over the last several seasons, Illinois has been one of the most productive offenses in the Big Ten, averaging 415 yards and just over 30 points per game.  Last year it averaged 446 yards per game.

Running back Morris Virgil. (Getty Images).

 

This year's edition, like last year's, is almost completely dependent on Illinois' exceptional quarterback, Jon Beutjer.  The transfer from Iowa has thrown for over 3,000 career yards at Illinois and is definitely the engine to their offense. So far this season he's thrown for close to 500 yards in two games – but curiously had a better outing against Missouri (throwing for 284 yards) than he did against Illinois State (207).  He's a big, long kid (6-5) with an accurate arm and experience at the position.

 

Beutjer, though, might be a bit limited this season compared to last year since he lost four receiving targets to graduation, and all four actually are still with an NFL team as late as this week. The two starting receivers stepping into that void are two rookies, JC transfer

Kelvin Hayden (6-2, 180) and true freshman Lonnie Hurst (6-3, 192).  Hayden, who was considered a big-time JC receiver, and Hurst, the first true freshman to start at Illinois since 1980,  will have a hard time matching up against UCLA's talented and experienced secondary, even though they have good size. Watch for Illinois to try to get either one of their big receivers isolated on UCLA's 5-9 cornerback Matt Clark. Clark had a so-so game against Colorado, and he obviously will be the guy that opposing offenses will try to pick on all season long with the likes of Matt Ware, Ben Emanuel and Jarrad Page also in the UCLA defensive backfield. Their starting tight end is junior Anthony McClellan, but they're very high on redshirt freshman Melvin Bryant, (6-5, 220). He also might line up as a wideout, Marcedes style.

 

UCLA's passing defense looked very good against Colorado – a team that looked like they had a pretty effective passing game the week before against Colorado State.  Key will be getting pressure on Beutjer, who is averagely mobile.  Illinois opponents in its first two weeks, Missouri and Illinois State, got some decent pressure on Beutjer, and pressuring a quarterback could be one of a few strongsuits of UCLA's defense this year.  Illinois' passing game, in its first two games, doesn't look like it's clicking, as if the quarterback and receivers aren't still on the same page.   Its best receiver in the Missouri game, senior fullback Carey Davis (and considered one of the best fullbacks in the country overall), sat out the Illinois State game with a staff infection that developed on a knee he had operated on two weeks ago.  The latest is that he's out for the UCLA game. 

Brandon Chillar (Getty Images).

 

Davis was also the Illini's returning top yardage gainer on the ground from last season.  Last season's  top running back, Antoineo Harris, is gone, and Illinois has filled the tailback position with co-starters in junior Morris Virgil and freshman E.B. Halsey. Both are about the same size – the 5-11 and 190-lb. range – and have decent speed. Halsey has run for about 200 yards in two games and Virgil had a solid game last week against Illinois State.  It is hard to get a bead on the Illinois running game, though; last week against Illinois State they racked up 254 yards on the ground, but the week before, against Big 12-er Missouri, could muster only 127.  It would seem that UCLA's defensive front led by Rodney Leisle and Dave Ball would present Illinois' most serious challenge to their run game yet.

 

Illinois returns three starters to its offensive line, but replaces both offensive guards with two new starters, one a redshirt freshman at right guard in Matt Maddox.  Watch for UCLA's defensive line to try to exploit Maddox as much as possible. 

 

Linebacker Brandon Chillar had a great game against Colorado, seemingly all over the field, making 12 tackles.  Spencer Havner is expected to play.  With Havner back, UCLA's linebackers also look to make a big impression against Colorado's short, ball-control passing game and their inexperienced running backs. 

 

Advantage: UCLA. Again, UCLA just has too much talent in its defense for Illinois to get the best of it.  You can probably expect Illinois to sustain a couple of drives during the course of the game – in much the same way that Colorado did. Odds are when you go up against a quarterback as effective as Beutjer you can't keep him out of the end zone the entire game.  But UCLA is superior in personnel in every unit matchup, clearly superior in its receiver-defensive back matchup and offensive line-defensive line matchup.  UCLA will make Illinois drive the field with its short passing game, ensuring against any big-play scores, and make Beutjer have to overcome UCLA's pass rush and pass coverage to score points. 

 

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. ILLINOIS' DEFENSE

 

Illinois' defensive coordinator Mike Cassity made a bit of a name for himself back in 2001 when the Illini won the Big Ten with an atttacking style of defense. 

 

Since then they've tried to duplicate it, to limited success.

Illinois' Derrick Strong. (Getty Images).


To that to be a gambling, attacking style of defense you need some strong personnel in your defensive backfield, and Illinois doesn't have the talent there.

 

They do have talent on defense elsewhere, though. Illinois best defensive player is 6-4, 265-lb. senior defensive end Derrick Strong. He's one of those guys that consistently seems to impact a game, from making tackles, blocking field goals (which he did last week against Illinois State, and then returned it for a 66-yard touchdown), disrupting running plays and pressuring quarterbacks. Against Missouri, he seemed like he was in the face of the Tigers' quarterback the entire game. In two games he's had 12 tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack.  He'll be a handful for UCLA's tackles to control, and their main challenge in keeping quarterback Drew Olson pristine and healthy.

 

The other stud on defense for Illinois is junior middle linebacker Matt Sinclair (6-3, 230). Sinclair was expected to be a big contributor after he stepped up to start the last eight games of the 2002 season, and so far he hasn't disappointed. He leads the team with 19 tackles in two games. Amazingly enough, he missed the beginning of Illinois' 2003 fall camap when he contracted Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and spent time in an intensive care unit with a 108 degree temperature. 

 

With Strong and Sinclair leading the line and linebacker units, Illinois has been solid against the run in its first two games, allowing an average of 125 yards per game.  For UCLA's struggling running game, that's not good news.  The Bruins will have to pump some life into their running game if they hope to be effective against Illinois. Manuel White is now earmarked to get involved in the offense, being moved up to second string tailback as well as fullfilling his duties as first-team fullback. Maurice Drew is expected to still get some time at tailback. But watch for Manuel White to get some good opportunties to prove himself in UCLA's running game.  Tyler Ebell will have to show he can make some things happen or the Bruin coaches could go to White pretty quickly.

 

Manuel White. (Getty Images).

The strength of UCLA's offense, though, looks to go straight ahead against Illinois weakness on defense – UCLA's passing game against Illinois' pass defense. 

 

UCLA's passing game looked solid last week, under both Matt Moore and Drew Olson at quarterback.  It has some of the best targets you could ever want as receivers in wide-out Craig Bragg and tight end Marcedes Lewis, who had his breakout game against Colorado last week.  Also, watch for White to have some balls thrown his way, too, as UCLA tries to get him isolated in the flat against defensive backs.

 

Illinois, generally, is a team that is okay to good in most of its units, but its one true weakness is in its pass defense.  Illinois State torched Illinois last week for 385 yards. One receiver alone, exploiting Illinois' suspect cornerbacks, racked up 245 yards by himself.  Christian Morton is a returning starter who had questions about him throughout fall camp and last season.  The other corner, Taman Jordan, is new, and was used by Illinois State.  UCLA has a definite advantage, sending Bragg, Lewis, White and Junior Taylor out into the pattern, with Illinois lacking the personnel to cover all of them. 

 

Drew Olson had a very strong showing against Colorado, and you can only expect that, in his home opener, with a friendly crowd, he'll be as efficient as he was in Boulder.  While Strong is a strong pass rusher, overall the Illini haven't been successful in pressuring the quarterback that much in their first two games.  They use multiple fronts and employ quite a bit of blitzing, but it hasn't resulted in too much quarterback pressure.  UCLA's offensive line looked fine in its pass protection last week generally, only experiencing a couple of breakdowns throughout the game, but giving Olson time to execute. Illinois's pass rush isn't any better than Colorado's so you can expect Olson again to have time to set up.

 

Also, you'd have to expect UCLA to be at least a little more aggressive in its play calling this week. After its passing game, especially its short passing game, looked effective last week while Colorado stacked the box against the run, it makes sense for UCLA to go through the air to loosen things up.  You'd also think that UCLA would want to get the ball in the hands of its playmakers Bragg and Lewis as much as possible against Illinois' passing defense. 


Definitely something to watch is Olson's well-being. With Matt Moore out to due to a bruised knee and #3 quarterback John Sciarra suspended for this game, UCLA would have to turn to a redshirt freshman walk-on in Brian Callahan.

 

Advantage:  UCLA.  Only because UCLA's strength, its passing game, is going up head-to-head against probably Illinois' biggest weakness – its passing defense.  After last week's anemic production on offense overall against Colorado, and all the mistake that shot them in the foot, playing at home for the first time, it's easy to expect UCLA's offense to be charged with more energy, especially if it feeds off the easy success you would anticipate it would have throwing the ball.

 

PREDICTION:  UCLA has both superior offensive and defensive personnel, and looked solid on special teams against Colorado, so it's really impossible to believe Illinois would be able to beat the Bruins. Could the Illini hang tough? Certainly. After all, this is a Big Ten team with some big, tough Big Ten type football players – and especially if UCLA doesn't clean up the issues from last week, or its offense isn't more dynamic.  But you'd have to expect that UCLA will be on its best behavior before a Rose Bowl, home-opener crowd, and the coaches and players, after the Colorado game, will be highly focused.  With just a moderately focused team combined with UCLA's talent, Illinois could stay close but ultimately can't compete.

 

UCLA  30

Illinois 17


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