The Hoosiers are coming off of their fifth straight loss, every single one of which has been in doubt in the fourth quarter. Four of those losses have been by four points or less. Can they overcome this streak of close losses to post a win on the road against the Fightin' Illini? Normally, I'd go ahead call for all Hoosier fans to dial their expectations for another loss and prepare themselves for basketball season, as this is Illinois' best chance for a win this season, and we should expect them to be fired up. After looking at both teams, though, I actually will go ahead and predict a narrow Hoosier win over the Illinois. It'll be tough, but both clubs are looking for their first wins, and the Hoosiers have consistently shown big-play ability on the offensive end, and Illinois has not. Maybe they'll discover it against the Hoosiers, but I think that's the difference.
It's hard to believe that just about a year ago, the Illinois football was the toast of the Chicago media, going a surprising 6-0 to start the season before losing their next six games. This year, the Illini have been pummeled, having giving up a similar number of points on the defensive side as IU has, and yet have scored far less points than the Hoosiers. They have wins only over Charleston Southern and Western Michigan. None of their losses have been by less than 17 points. Now, Illinois just faced three of the very best that Big Ten has to offer in Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan. And frankly, Arizona State and Louisiana State are a clear level better than anyone the Hoosiers faced in non-conference play. So, let's not be too critical of the margins of the losses that the Illini has suffered.
There is one thing with the Illinois team that is most curious to me. I had long thought that Illinois has been suffering from an injury to a critical position with QB Nathan Scheelhaase sitting out several games and getting sidelined again in the Michigan loss. Looking over the numbers, though, while back-up QB Reilly O'Toole has been pressed into action much more quickly than expected, he also has a much steadier presence than Scheelhaase. O'Toole has passed for 6 TDs to 3 INTs, posting a rating of 145.9 to Scheelhaase's 111.4. Scheelhaase has a lower completion rating, fewer yards per pass (so, not going for more big plays, at least not successfully), and a mere 3 TDs to 5 INTs despite throwing 27 more times. The Illinois rushing attack is no great shakes, getting only 6 TDs and averaging a mere 3.4 yards per attempt (Indiana has posted 15 rushing TDs and averages 4.7 per carry). As I said, Illinois has faced some tough teams, but they've shown precious little ability thus far to possess the ball and dictate the outcome to this point in the season. And with 10 interceptions thrown already by the Illini quarterbacks, look for the Hoosier secondary to actually make a play or two, and that could be crucial.
So what happens in Champaign-Urbana on Saturday? I am guessing that we are going to see some serious offense, and the Hoosiers have the experience of making big plays, so I'd look for them to come out and build a big lead. I'm guessing that the Illini will have some trouble matching IU punch for punch for a while, but it couldn't be an Indiana football game without a white-knuckle fourth quarter. Illinois will eventually pile up some points in the second half to make this one close... very close. Possibly OT close. Illinois should be hungry for a win, but I don't think they have the confidence to keep the Hoosiers out of the endzone when it counts. I'm putting it out there, Indiana comes out of Champaign with coach Kevin Wilson's first Big Ten win, likely in OT.
In the end, I just look at these two teams' numbers, and think Illinois has a lot to get figured out, and Indiana has a win coming.