Know Your Foe: Illinois

After its biggest victory of the season, No.25 Wisconsin looks to win its first game away from Camp Randall Stadium when the Badgers take on Illinois Saturday night at Memorial Stadium. Badger Nation gets the inside scoop on this week's opponent from Illini Playbook publisher Fletcher Page.

1) What was more disappointing to Illinois from the Nebraska game: the Cornhuskers ran wild on Illinois or the Illini couldn't score on Nebraska's porous defense?

Page: The defensive issues were the immediate concerns of the day. The stats, over nine yards per pass and over six yards each rush, showed Nebraska dominated the Illini defense. It wasn't easy for Illini fans to watch. Nebraska was bigger, faster and stronger, more physical at the point of attack and the Illini struggled to tackle once ball carriers got to the second level.

Most of the issues discussed on our message board following the game centered on defensive coordinator Tim Banks and his unit. The defense now ranks 102nd in the country, allowing nearly 450 total yards a game.

Speaking for long-term perspective though, the offense's performance was troubling, too. Everybody knew coming into this year the defense was going to struggle due to only playing two seniors and returning only four contributors. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit emerged as the sign of hope. Putting up at least 42 points in three of the first four games, Cubit's varied, pass-happy offense was fun to watch and appeared hard to stop.

The plan seemed simple – pick teams into a shootout and hope Cubit could keep working his magic. That didn't work against Nebraska. The offense scored three first half points and the game was effectively over.

Teams are going to score on Illinois – it's that simple. If the offense can't keep pace early, there's really no chance.

2) What are some of the big things the Illini are trying to correct on this bye week on both sides of the football?

Page: Defensively, the most glaring issues are the lack of turnovers forced, getting pressure on the quarterback and tackling. I guess that doesn't leave much that doesn't need fixing, huh? Like I said in the previous question, a learning curve and inconsistent performance was expected, so forcing turnovers could nullify some of the issues plaguing the Illini. So far though, the unit has forced five – only two teams in the country have fewer.

Secondly, Illinois is last in the country with only four sacks thus far. Some of that is due to playing teams like Southern Illinois and Washington, offenses with quick-passing philosophies. Still, whether it's the just the front group trying to create pressure or a blitz is called, opposing quarterbacks have been way too comfortable all season long.

And then there's the tackling. It was a problem last year. It sprang back up in the loss to Washington. And it was at its worst against Cornhuskers running back Ameer Abdullah, who had 225 yards and two scores. Tackling is one of those things – it's taken for granted until it's a problem. Once you're six or seven weeks deep into the season, how is going to get better? Going back to the fundamentals, fitting the proper gaps and eliminating eye violations (put simply, looking where you're supposed to) are some of the things the staff has talked about.

Offensively, the unit has done a good job building week to week. The biggest thing with that group is cashing in when chances present themselves. Yeah, I know, that's a big duh with every team. But with Illinois, that type of comment doesn't go without saying. With the defense a work in progress, the offense is increasingly responsible for the mood and momentum of the entire team (and fan base it seems). Plays like when wideout Steve Hull dropped a for-sure touchdown against Washington and tailback Donovonn Young fumbled away a promising drive at Nebraska tangibly cut the Illini spirit. So focusing on maintaining a positive outlook and capitalizing on red zone and big play chances are musts.

3) New offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has really revamped Illinois offense. What are the big reasons the Illini have jumped at least 80 spots in the national offensive rankings from last year to this year?

Page: Cubit's experience, confidence and charisma have combined to re-energize the players. He's been around long enough to know – you've got to play to the strength of your guys, convey confidence and have fun. So far, for the most part, it's worked. Schematically, the offense has a number of directions it can go and the formations are endless. That's Illinois' strength – it doesn't have one area that is necessarily strong. Instead, there are at least seven wideouts who play each game. There are three or four legit tight ends. There are two running backs. There are two quarterbacks. So Cubit mixes the personnel, mixes the formations and spreads the wealth.

There are so many different things for opposing defenses to prepare for that it helps equalize any talent gaps Illinois may have. All the moving and shaking looks complicated to us outsiders and opposing teams, but the plays are actually simple for the most part. The players have fully bought into the whole deal and are enjoying more success because of it.

4) Nathan Scheelhaase has bounced back after two frustrating seasons. Is it just because of the new offense or are there other factors to his resurgence?

Page: The biggest thing is he's healthy. He sprained his ankle in the season opener last season and never was 100 percent the rest of the way (including a concussion later in the year). Cubit came in at a time when Scheelhaase was kind of an afterthought. Talented newcomers in freshman Aaron Bailey and transfer Wes Lunt were the new, best things ever for fans to talk about. But Cubit told Scheelhaase early on that he was the guy. And Nathan is a five-year player that's played, been coached or recruited by five Illinois offensive coordinators. He knows a number of different offenses. He's been through adversity. He's mentally and physically tough and he's a good leader. He may not have the best arm strength or prototype size but he's the kind of capable, knowledgeable, fearless type that Cubit loves.

He also got married this summer, so… maybe his perspective and approach is different than the normal college student.

5) Tim Beckman came into this year on the hot seat. Are you surprised that Illinois is 3-2 and where are the big strides this team has made outside of the offense?

Page: I'm not surprised the team is 3-2. I didn't pick them to beat Cincinnati, so they have exceeded my expectations to this point.

On the field, the offense, as you say, is clearly much better. The return game has completely improved, too. V'Angelo Bentley and Miles Osei have boosted both the kick and punt return teams into the top half of the country. Field goal and punt teams still need to get better, though.

More importantly, the team has shown more fight and resolve this season after being completely thrashed in the second half of games last season. This season Illinois trailed Washington by 21 in the third quarter and was down 30-5 in the second half at Nebraska. Instead of giving in and allowing the score to reach an embarrassing fashion, each time the Illini fought back. They erased the Huskies lead to seven in the fourth quarter and managed to make the Nebraska loss more respectable at 39-19.

If it sounds like I'm offering moral victories after losses, it's because I am. Hey, after you see a 2-10 season and a team has lost 15 conference games, moral victories became a more real thing.

6) Linebackers Jonathan Brown and Mason Monheim entered the Nebraska game ranking first and second in the conference in tackles. How does Illinois' scheme allow them to make so many plays?

Page: Well, not to take anything away from those two guys (Brown has NFL player written all over him and Monheim is a stellar sophomore), but teams have exposed Illinois with the run. The defensive line hasn't been able to create penetration or get off blocks. Backs are getting to the next level, where Brown and Monheim are eating them up for the most part. This defense has looked pretty, pretty bad at times this season. I couldn't imagine how much worse it would be without Brown and Monheim. Expect those guys to remain at the top of the conference tackling leaderboard though. The running-oriented offenses that will be encountered coupled with the strong bet to oftentimes trailing in the second half will lead to plenty more takedowns for those two.

7) Primetime games don't often come to Champaign, so how big of a game is this for the program to put on a good show?

Page: Oh, this is huge. Just the game-time not being at 11 a.m. makes all the difference in the world. This will be the first game in Champaign this season that didn't start before noon. I'll hand it to the staff – those coaches are doing everything they can to sell the program and entice the players needed to establish a Big Ten program. The problem is, getting players to visit isn't always easy when you kickoff just after most people have finished breakfast.

This Wisconsin game has been circled for a long time. There's time to get kids into Champaign. The opponent is nationally known. There's plans for an "Orange Out' with the team wearing, you guessed it, all orange and Coach Beckman requesting all fans follow suit. The whole thing will be an event, an event the staff is trying to sell to prospective players.

8) What areas of Wisconsin do you expect will give Illinois trouble? Where do you think the Illini have the edge over the Badgers?

Page: It's an easy answer – Wisconsin's offensive line and running attack will cause Illinois trouble. I know this because Nebraska and Washington gave them trouble in this area. The defense simply is not in good standing in terms of high-level talent or decent enough depth to combat this.

At this point, it's hard for me to say Illinois holds an advantage over the Badgers. I think Wisconsin, from what I've seen and heard, has an inconsistent passing attack. But Illinois has a ridiculously young and still-finding-it's way secondary. So that's null.

I guess if I could give the Illini one tip of the cap, it's the way Cubit uses players like Josh Ferguson, Jon Davis, Aaron Bailey and Ryan Lankford. Ferguson is a running back that can cause serious damage catching the ball. Davis is a tight end that can play wideout and running back. Lankford is a wideout that is also a rushing threat. Bailey has a small package of plays, but is tough to defend because he is a big, powerful runner that has potential to throw the ball. The potential for trick plays and off the wall stuff is somewhere near Saturn at this point.

In summary, the Illini have a few offensive threats that can keep Wisconsin guessing as to where the ball will end up.

9) What is the one thing Illinois needs to do well in order to win Saturday?

Page: Win the turnover battle. I don't see Illinois slowing the Badgers rushing attack, which will only help Joel Stave build on the passing game. Wisconsin is going to move the football and score some points. With that in mind, Illinois can't turn the ball over. It obviously gives the Badgers more chances, but it hurts the Illini mindset to a very real and very staggering degree.

In short, the defense forced two first-half turnovers against Washington, keeping the team in the game and setting up a shot for the win late. In contrast, no takeaways occurred against Nebraska, as the Cornhuskers kept driving and driving, scoring and scoring. This defense is feast or famine. Turnovers are the key.

10) What's your prediction for the game?

Page: I think we'll see something similar to the Nebraska defeat – I'll say Wisconsin wins 41-21.


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