Illinois holds an unpleasant distinction: the season is at the halfway point, and the Illini are the only team in the six major conferences that has not defeated a single Division I-A (FBS) team. Illinois's lone win came against Illinois State. While that's depressing for Illinois fans, it's even more depressing that IU is a 2.5 point underdog to Illinois, at home, and on homecoming. In fairness to the Illini, they have played only 5 games, compared to the six games already played by most teams. Also, all of the Illini's losses have been to BCS conference teams that likely are bowl bound (Missouri, Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State). Still, the Illini are desperate, and the fan base of whichever team loses this game is going to lose its collective mind.
I really thought that the Illini, who lost a bunch of close games in 2008, would bounce back in 2009. Why hasn't that happened? While it's hard to measure Illinois's statistics against IU's, given the difference in level of competition, overall the Illini's numbers demonstrate a nearly total failure, particularly on offense. It's no exaggeration to say that Illinois ranks near the bottom of Division I-A in every major statistical category other than total rushing offense and net punting. The Illini's overall rushing numbers, 167 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry, are respectable, but haven't been enough to overcome a horrid pass offense. Ron Zook already has demoted and promoted Juice Williams. Williams has been bad: 54 percent completions, 2 TDs to 4 INTs. His backup and one-time starter, Eddie McGee, has been worse: 51 percent completions, one touchdown, and 3 INTs in only 41 attempts. Even the rushing stats are a bit skewed by the Illinois State game.For instance, the Illini's leading rusher, Jason Ford, is averaging 9.3 yards per carry, but that's mostly on the strength of a 13 carry, 137 yard performance against the Redbirds. Overall, the Illini quarterbacks, Williams and McGee, have approximately half of Illinois's total rushing attempts. IU fans have seen this offense, and while a running quarterback is a nice weapon, it looks like desperation when there is nothing else to the offense. Finally, Arrelious Benn, whose commitment to Illinois was supposedly a watershed moment for the program, had caught only 13 balls this year and hasn't caught a touchdown in a year. In short, on paper, the Illini offense looks putrid--but not as bad as Virginia's offense looked on paper before last weekend's game.
On defense, as I noted, the numbers are not any prettier. The Illini are allowing 408 yards and 28 points per game and are allowing 185 yards per game on the ground. They don't pressure the quarterback particularly well. If he is healthy, Darius Willis seems like the key to this game. If IU can establish a rushing offense, IU may be able to control the game a bit.
After last weekend's disaster, I have no idea what to expect from this team. Based on the way last year's team responded to adversity, I don't expect much. Still, this game and next week's game at Northwestern will dictate the course of the season and the course of Bill Lynch's career. If IU has anything it is holding back on either side of the ball, right now would be the right time to use it.