Illinois - At a glance:
Location: Champaign, Illinois
Stadium: Memorial Stadium (size: 62,872)
Expected Attendance: 0. The game's in Minneapolis.
Undergraduate population: 31,173.
First season: 1890
Number of Big Ten Titles: 15
All-time record: 563-513-51
All-time bowl record: 6-9
Most awesome alum: this one's easy: current Gophers coach Tim Brewster
Most awesome Illinois fan site: Hail to the Orange.
Looking around the Big Ten, there are obviously a few different groups of teams and coaches. First, you've got the established teams with high-level recruits and coaches who have proven their mettle (Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan). Next, there is a group of solid teams with good but not great recruits, and outstanding coaches (Iowa, Michigan State and Northwestern). Then there are the teams with middling recruits and teams which are average to below average performers (Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue). Then, you get to Minnesota and its Week 10 opponent, Illinois. Both teams have coaching staffs that recruit successfully, but there is really little indication that either head coach can actually coach.
When that's the case, you end up with a 7-1 start for the Gophers, followed by the November implosion. You also end up with the conference's best statistical QB playing his bowl game on Playstation 3 because his team couldn't beat Northwestern in the season finale.
That's why trying to figure out what's going to happen to each of these teams in 2009 is really hopeless until the non-conference slate is complete. Minnesota has new coordinators, a new stadium, and a new offensive philosophy. Illinois has a new offensive coordinator, has lost most of its defense, and yet is still highly recommended for a major bowl. This game is the conundrum within a mystery. Let's start de-constructing it by looking at.....
Illinois on Offense: The centerpiece of Illinois's team is QB Juice Williams. As a freshman, his completion percentage was under 40% and the team won 2 games. As a sophomore, his maturity was evident as he overruled Coach Zook and made a crucial fourth-down conversion in the fourth quarter of Illinois' upset of Ohio State. As a junior, he alternated dominating performances such as a Michigan Stadium record 425 yards of offense, with embarrassing efforts in losses to Minnesota, Western Michigan and Northwestern. The expectation is that Williams will compete for the conference Player of the Year award in 2009.
However, he may not be the best player on his team. WR Arrelious Benn, despite only touching painted grass 5 times last year, had 67 catches for over 1000 yards, and really is the only wide receiver in the conference that is comparable in production to Eric Decker.
All of Illinois' other skill position players return. Running backs Daniel Dufrene (663 yards, zero touchdowns? in 2008), Jason Ford (294 and 8 TDs) and Mikel LeShoure (126 yards) are in the backfield. Monster wideout (six-foot-five, 255 pounds) Jeff Cumberland, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, and Chris Duvalt are returning wide players.
Along the offensive line, the Illini lose Xavier Fulton and Ryan McDonald to graduation (Fulton to the NFL). True sophomores Jeff Allen and Corey Allen will likely man the tackle positions, and Eric Block (C), Jon Asamoah and Randall Hunt complete the line.
Bottom line: Illinois on Offense: The popular preseason tendency for Illinois is to declare: Juice Williams + Arrelious Benn = domination. However, the team was 5-7 last year, and the Illini's failure to go bowling can be directly attributed to Wiliams' poor performances against Western and Northwestern. A lot will depend upon the young offensive line providing Juice with the ability to execute the spread, and to have time to pass to Benn and Cumberland.
Illinois was shredded by van der Steeg last year. This year, the defensive ends, as previewed by Buck Bravo, should have the opportunity to tee off on the two true sophomore tackles and disrupt the spread offense. If they can apply the needed pressure, Illinois may be forced to the pass early in the game.
Illinois on Defense: Illinois has lost quite a bit from their 2008 defense, including 3 of 4 starters on the defensive line, 3 of the top 4 linebackers, and first-round cornerback Vontae Davis. Of course, Illinois' defense has been reeling since 2007, when this guy graduated:
While the defense led the conference in sacks and tackles for loss per game, it also gave up 26.6 points per game in 2008, as opposed to 21.8 in 2007. Considering that 5 of the front seven's 2008 starters are no longer in Champaign, there is significant uncertainty as to how the defense will perform.
For what it's worth, senior end Doug Pilcher is named on the Hendricks Award watch list, and Josh Brent has been reinstated to the team after spending part of the summer in the pen for being a drunk driver. Martez Wilson has the chance to live up to his five-star billing in high school and help replace Brit Miller's 132 tackles in 2008, although getting stabbed in the offseason probably didn't do wonders for his conditioning (he and Kevin Whaley could have a few interesting chats at the bottom of a pile this year, heh?)
The secondary was not that bad in 2008, only allowing 197 passing yards per game. However, as mentioned before star Vontae Davis is now playing for the Dolphins, and took his 78 tackles with him. Travon Bellamy (53 tackles), Donsay Hardeman (44 tackles, 1 INT), Dere Hicks (43 tackles, 1 INT), and Bo Flowers (23 tackles) are the top returning performers.
Bottom Line - Illinois Defense: Outside of Wilson, there isn't much to know or really feel confident about in regard to this defense. Three of the top four tacklers have graduated, as have five of the Illini's front seven. Players that accounted for 20.5 of the team's conference-leading 32 sacks (THAT number led the conference?) and four of the team's six interceptions are gone.
As with Michigan State, the keys for succeeding against the Illini defense would revolve around getting a blocker on LB Martez Wilson, exploiting the inexperience on the defensive line, and getting the DBs to get suckered into play action. While the defense may be solid after 9 weeks of the 2009 season, there is no reason to have such confidence on August 12th.
Illinois Special Teams: Meh. Matt Eller returns to do placekicking, and was 15 for 20 in field goal kicking in 2008. Anthony Santella returns to punt, with a 39.40 ypp average, placing him eighth in the conference.
Short punts equal a possibility for returns. Calling Troy Stoudermire.
Anything else? Zook is known as a top rank recruiter. He recruited most of the players to Florida which ultimately won a national title under Urban Meyer's coaching in 2007. He has recruited well at Illinois, although some of his excellent recruiting staff members (notably his former offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, who went to New Mexico) have moved on. In 2009, Illinois pulled what Scout's garage experts rated as the #35 class in the country (for comparison, Minnesota's was #46). The marquee pickups were CB Justin Green, OT Andrew Carter, WR Terry Hawthorne, QB Nathan Scheelhaase, and DT Lendell Buckner. I would doubt any of these players get meaningful time in 2009 - they either play positions of strength for Illinois, or positions that usually redshirt.
The Bottom Line: What to Expect: Minnesota and Illinois are two of the true wild-cards of this conference. I wouldn't be surprised if either finished with records varying from 3-9 to 10-2. And therefore, the home field advantage is what I will use to separate the two teams. At this point, there is hardly any other way to separate them. On November 1st, however, both fanbases will have a better read on these teams, and TDG will re-examine this game.