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Indiana Hoosiers at Illinois Fighting Illini (preview).

Illinois Fighting Illini

2010 record: 5-3 (2-2 Big Ten)

2009 record: 3-9 (2-6)

2010 Sagarin: 39 (IU is #104)

2009 Sagarin: 94

Coach: Ron Zook (6th season, 24-42)

Series: Illinois leads 43-21-2

TV: noon, Big Ten Network

Blog: Hail to the Orange

Tomorrow in Champaign, the Indiana Hoosiers begin the most critical stretch of the 2010 schedule.  IU stands at 4-2, with the mandatory 4-0 non-conference record and with an 0-2 Big Ten record, with a competitive loss to Michigan and a blowout loss at Ohio State.  Most IU fans hoped that the Hoosiers would find a way to beat Michigan and stand at 5-1 at this point, but 4-2 was always the most likely scenario at this point.  IU's trip to Champaign and home game next week against Northwestern probably will determine the course of the 2010 season.  If IU manages to go 2-0, then the Hoosiers will be bowl-eligible and can spend the rest of the season playing for position.  If IU can beat either Illinois or Northwestern and goes 0-2, it's hard to imagine that IU would find another two wins from the games against Iowa, at Wisconsin, Penn State in DC, and at Purdue.  Going 1-1 against the Land of Lincoln would get IU to 5 wins, which would keep hope alive for the rest of the season.

The Illini are a bit stronger than expected before the season.  The Illini's 2007 run to the Rose Bowl won't be repeated anytime soon, but Illinois blew out Penn State on the road, 33-13, and the Illini's only losses are to Michigan State, Ohio State, and Missouri, three ranked teams with only one loss among them.   IU and Illinois will be matching strength against weakness.  IU has a potent offense and a horrid defense.  Illinois has a fairly weak offense but a good defense.  On the defensive side, the Illini are in the top 25 in total defense (303 yards per game) and scoring defense (18 points per game).  Their rushing defense is modestly better than their pass efficiency defense, but both are very good.  This will be, by far, the second-best defense that IU has played this season.  Michigan's defense has more in common with that of our non-con opponents than with Illinois's.  A comparison of Illinois's performance against Ohio State to IU's performance against the Buckeyes shows that the Ohio State offense was less productive against Illinois.  The Buckeyes showed a healthy rushing attack against Illinois, gaining 213 yards and averaging 5.0 per carry, but the OSU passing game generated only 77 yards on 18 pass attempts. So far, IU has moved the ball against overmatched defenses and utterly failed to do so in one game against a real defense.  Illinois isn't as formidable as Ohio State, but the Illini have a real defense.

The Illini offense is not dominant, but they have an excellent running back, Mikel LeShoure, who is #14 in the nation with 113 rushing yards per game, has held his own even against the strong defenses of Ohio State and Michigan State.  The Illini's passing attack, such as it is, is led by redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.  Scheelhaase's numbers are far from overwhelming.  He is completing only 58 percent of his passes and has 4 TDs to 7 INTs.  Other than 229 yards against FCS Southern Illinois, Scheelhaase's top game was a 15-19, 121 performance at Penn State.  All 7 of Scheelhaase's interceptions have come in their losses: he threw 3 against Missouri, 3 against Michigan State, and 1 against Ohio State.  He didn't throw any in Illinois's games against NIU, SIU, or Penn State.  In other words, if he throws an early pick against IU, be encouraged.  If he torches us early, go for a walk.

Unfortunately, IU's injuries are piling up.  According to the H-T, safety Lenyatta Kiles is out for this game, as are other DBs Chris Adkins and Richard Council.  OL James Brewer and RB Nick Turner also will miss the game, and Darius Willis is out for the season.  Nick Freeland, to the extent that he is still considered the first string kicker, is out as well. 

Vegas says that the Illini are 13.5 point favorites, something I don't think any of us would have predicted before the season or even three weeks ago.  Illinois strikes me as a touch matchup for IU. I'm afraid that we'll have to sell out for the run and will thereby allow a mediocre (at best) quarterback to look much better than he is against our injury-riddled-and-poor-when-healthy secondary.  To make matters worse, the "other" Memorial Stadium has been a house of horrors for IU.  IU has won in Champaign only once since 1979, the 2006 game in which an IU comeback culminated in what now is the second-most memorable kick in Austin Starr's career (actually, I treasure the memory of the Illinois game more, because I'm still angry that we blew a 24-3 lead against Purdue in 2007).  Since 1997, Illinois has gone winless in the Big Ten three times (1997, 2003, and 2005).  On two other occasions (1996 and 2004), the Illini saved themselves from that indignity by beating IU in Champaign.  Even Bill Mallory never won there. 

I am, unfortunately, going to err on the side of pessimism this week.  I hope I'm wrong, and won't be surprised if I am, but...Illinois 31, Indiana 14.