2011 record: 5-0 (1-0)
2010 record: 7-6 (4-4), beat Baylor in Texas Bowl
2011 Sagarin: 22 (IU is #113)
2010 Sagarin: 39 (IU was #98)
Coach: Ron Zook (7th season, 33-45)
Series: Illinois leads 44-21-2
TV: 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
Blog: Hail to the Orange
Before the season, the game against Illinois, at home, looked like one of IU's prime opportunities for a conference win. Instead, the Illini come to Bloomington ranked, undefeated, and favored by 16 points. In recent years, this series has heavily favored the home team. IU has won in Champaign only once since 1979, and Illinois has won only 2 of its last 7 in Bloomington. The only Illinois teams to win in Bloomington since 1995 are the 2001 and 2007 Illini, both of which played in BCS bowls. This may be the best Illini team since those squads, so IU will face a tough task on Saturday. IU will be seeking to avenge last year's rough showing in Champaign.
The Illini began their season by whipping up on a couple of lesser foes, and then have won three consecutive home games--against Arizona State, Western Michigan, and Northwestern--by exactly three points each. The Northwestern game included a comeback from an 18 point second half deficit. This would suggest that the Illini are less than dominant, but they haven't followed the tendency of the Zook era, which is to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (IU's comeback win in Champaign in 2006 would be a prime example).
The Illini are lead by Nathan Scheelhaase, the dual threat sophomore quarterback. As you can see, he is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and has run for 251 yards and 3 touchdowns. Jason Ford and Troy Pollard add to an Illini rushing attack that ranks #22 in FBS with 209 yards per game. AJ Jenkins, obviously, has been Scheelhaase's favorite receiving target, with 633 yards and 5 TDs in five games. IU allowed Penn State's Derek Moye to get behind the secondary once last week, and it will be interesting (terrifying) to see how Jenkins does against the Hoosier secondary. Scheelhaase torched Northwestern for 391 yards. The Illini have been strong defensively, as well. Before last week's game, the Illini hadn't allowed more than 20 points to anyone, and even NU, despite the high scoring game last week, managed only 329 yards of offense (the Illini turned the ball over 3 times, however). Illinois ranks #17 nationallly in total defense at 295 yards per game, and #23 in scoring defense. Illinois has been great at getting to the quarterback, recording a total of 17 sacks this season, led by Whitney Mercilus (seriously, that's his name) with 5.5 and Michael Buchanan with 4.5. The Illini have played well on both sides of the ball and have played well in close games.
IU is 1-4, but the Hoosiers have been in every game. The oddsmakers say that will end tomorrow. It has been a rough week for the program generally, with RB/TB Nick Turner quitting the team, along with RB Antonio Banks and defensive lineman Marlandez Harris. None of the three has seen much or any playing time this season, and KEevin Wilson didn't seem all that broken up about it:
"(Turner) came in and said he didn't want to play, and I thought that was a good choice because he hasn't been practicing hard,'' Wilson said. "He came in Tuesday and said he didn't want to play. He said he had been thinking about it for about a month or two.''
Welcome to a transition season. Also, IU's quarterback situation remains unsettled. Edward Wright-Baker apparently was hurt last week, and it's not clear how playing time will be allocated this week. Dusty Kiel and Wright-Baker are listed as "or" on the depth chart, and assuming that each is healthy, perhaps we will see a split of playing time tomorrow. Illinois is having a nice season, but I like the way this game falls. Illinois is coming off an emotional comeback against a rival. They haven't been on the road yet. The Illini are tough, but this feels like a trap game. Do I fgewel it enough to pick it? Eh. Almost. Illinois 31, Indiana 28.