Respect for Illinois football has been on the rise in the past week based on the 45-17 win over Cincinnati, and that’s fair. So far that is two straight games that have been won through the efficient, high-volume production of veteran quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, and it appears that new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has been the catalyst for change on that side of the ball.
Playing on the road against a team that has proven capable of putting up serious points via a chaotic offensive attack is no easy task, and so the consensus has been that Washington will be tested this Saturday. That the Huskies don’t need to win with style, they just need to get the win and get home, something Sark’s team has struggled with mightily during his time in Seattle.
I understand that Washington has not yet proven that the road woes are behind them, but I believe that if the Huskies are prepared to execute offensively in a manner that even resembles the Boise State performance, they will win decisively at Soldier Field.
I say this because the Illini renaissance has failed to spread to the defensive side of the ball, where Illinois has proved porous, giving up 6.12 yards per play through two games, good for 95th in the country. Just as a point of reference: Washington ranks 17th (3.93 yards per play) through one game. For Illinois the vast majority of those yards have been surrendered through the air. 324.5 yards per game, to be specific. That’s good for an atrocious ranking of 116 out of 125 total teams in the country.
The two offensive powerhouses responsible for letting it rip against Illinois so far? Southern Illinois (FCS) and Cincinnati. Now, it’s key that the Illini have won both of those games, and it’s especially key that despite surrendering 456 total yards to Cincinnati, the final score was 45-17. When your offensive is capable of scoring 40+ points (42 against S. Illinois, 45 against Cincinnati), giving up 17 is perfectly acceptable. Bend but don’t break, as they say.
Unfortunately, what bends against those two teams may very well break wide open against a team with Washington’s offensive talent. Really take a moment to think about the offense within the context of what we saw in the Boise State win. Four legit weapons at wide receiver: Kasen Williams, Kevin Smith, Jaydon Mickens, and John Ross. The return of the best tight end in the country, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, to make the number of lethal targets five. The guy in charge of getting them the ball, Keith Price, is a senior who appeared to turn a corner (in the form of 300+ yards and 2 touchdowns) against Boise State after a rough junior year. Oh, and the offensive line looked more than competent running the blazing-fast no-huddle, and they will be blocking for returning 1400+ yard rusher Bishop Sankey.
That combination of factors led to 38 points against a Boise State defense that was near-elite in 2012, and that, despite the loss of multiple starters, will likely prove to be above average this year. If this game were also being played at Husky Stadium, I have to believe that Washington would be favored by two or three touchdowns.
But at Soldier Field, the expected margin of victory is pared way down based on the very real chance that Washington’s offense could play a totally different game in Chicago and fail to dazzle, and that the defense could come out flat on the road and fall victim to Scheelhaase’s arm. That’s on Coach Sark and his team. If they are ready to take the next step and play like Soldier Field is just as much their territory as Husky Stadium, I do not believe that the Illini defense is prepared to stop them.
They lack the playmakers, with the players accounting for 4 out of last year’s 7 interceptions graduated (they have 1 pick through two games). They lack the pass-rushers with the leading sack-artist from last year that is present on this year’s team accounting for only 3.5 sacks in ’12. Combine that with all the yards they’ve been surrendering, and I feel that there are only two ways Illinois keeps Washington under 35 points this Saturday: the Illini defenders step up and show us something they have not even hinted at, or Washington falls completely flat like last year’s embarrassingly one-sided loss to Arizona last year.
While no one will no for sure until Sark has logged a few impressive road wins (or not), I am more and more confident that this year’s team is different, that they are prepared to execute on the road. If that’s true, Illinois has much to prove on defense if they hope to emerge victorious.